Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Richard Scarry and the gorillas.

Kids are sponges--they soak up everything around them, both the good and the bad, and then they try to make sense of it.

When I was a boy in the 1970s, I remember hearing on the radio that guerrillas had fought their way into South Viet Nam and were threatening the capitol, Saigon.  At the time, the Planet of the Apes movies were very popular, and there was even a TV show. 

Hearing 'guerrillas' on the radio, I thought 'gorillas.'  So in my kid logic, I pictured armed gorillas invading some distant city and killing everyone.  Soon I had nightmares of gorillas on horseback attacking my hometown and shooting people when they tried to escape.  Scary stuff.

However, I also received a book that year as a gift.  A Golden Book by Richard Scarry titled BEST STORY BOOK EVER.  BEST was filled with 72 stories of animals, usually dressed in clothes, doing all sorts of useful, helpful things.

Animals playing instruments in an orchestra.  A fire department crewed entirely by pigs, with detailed drawings of their equipment.  A dog named Couscous who was a police detective in Algeria.  All kinds of amazing stories, but not one where gorillas massacred people.

Pretty soon I either forgot about the gorillas in Viet Nam, or maybe I figured out the news meant people.  Either way, the nightmares departed and I moved on to bigger worries, like the threat of nuclear war. 

So remember when you're around your kids or your grandkids or anyone small, they watch and listen and soak up everything around them.  Don't give them fuel for nightmares.  Instead, open a Richard Scarry book and feed their imaginations.

(I referred to my old copy of BEST, which includes stories by Richard Scarry and his wife, Patricia Scarry, plus Ole Risom, and Kathryn Jackson.  You can read a wiki about Scarry here, or an article in PCMagazine here.  The pic is from my bookshelf.)

(If you liked this article, please support my writing by purchasing one of my novels.  Thank you!)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The fascination with ant lions

This past week while reading Chimp's blog statistics, I noticed for the first time that the highest number of readers/pageviews was not in the United States.  It was the Ukraine.  And in particular, the article on ant lions seems to fascinate Ukrainian readers.  I guess they must be doing a report for school.

So I'm glad to write "Thank you for reading," to our new friends in the Ukraine.  I also noted that France and the United Kingdom were well represented this week, as was Germany, Russia and India.  Welcome everyone!

I'm always happy to have new readers.  And if anyone has an explanation of why folks are suddenly interested in ant lions, I would love to read it.

Thanks!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Farms versus Mosquitos

When you read/watch/listen to the news, you see a lot of stories about dramatic deaths.  Deaths in war.  Deaths from hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis.  Death by murder.
 
But for a lot of people in the world, death will come in the form of something quite small and non-dramatic.  Like a mosquito that bites them while they are asleep.  Or a cup of water that will give them dysentery.
 
Most of us will die a very common death.  The sad part is that so many of these deaths are preventable.  For example, 80% of deaths from cholera can be prevented by using Oral Rehydration Salts.

A look at the World Health Organization's Millennium Development Goals is revealing.  The Goals include:  helping underweight children, child health, immunizations, maternal and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, malaria, neglected tropical diseases, tuberculosis, water and sanitation, and essential medicines.

To put it simply, clean water, food, mosquito nets for beds, and condoms can save a lot of lives.  These aren't high technology; they are more on the order of basic necessities.

The website for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shows a lot of the same issues.  Their Global Health list includes diarrhea, family planning, HIV/AIDS, malaria, maternal newborn and child health, nutrition, pneumonia and flu, polio, tuberculosis, tobacco, and vaccines.  These are all worthy of serious attention, and I would add alcohol and drug use to the list.  Of particular interest is the Gates Foundation emphasis on small farms.  I think this is very smart--individual farms are what built most of the developed countries.

Sometimes I've heard the argument from people that there isn't much that can be done about a lot of the senseless deaths in this world, and I've always found that a negative, quitter's type of attitude.  So many of these problems can be tackled successfully.

For instance, in 1988 polio was found in 125 countries, but by 2008 the number of countries with polio epidemics had dropped to four.  And the number of polio cases worldwide has dropped 99%.  This is incredible progress.

So don't let the news you hear depress you.  Yes, there are people suffering.  But there are also people working hard to alleviate that suffering.  And you can be one of them.

(World Health Organization site here.  Gates Foundation here.  The idealized Currier and Ives farm painting is from: prints.co.nz)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Some opinions on religion.

On Chimpwithpencil, I usually stick to subjects from the Arts and Sciences, like history or technology or nature.  I avoid politics not because of a lack of interest, but more like a general disgust.  Religion is also tricky.  I have friends of various religions, as well as friends who are agnostics and atheists, so I try not to push a particular religion on anyone.  In fact, I think the major world religions are quite similar. 

But several times lately, I've read or heard the assertion that religions have caused more wars and suffering than any other force in history. 

So my essay today revolves around the assertion that religions cause wars.  And to further it, is civilization better off without religion?

Religions that last centuries move through phases, sometimes including a militant phase.  People are quick to mention the Christian crusades or the Spanish Inquisition.  In modern times we have Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorist groups it has spawned, so it's easy to for people to point and say, "Look at all the misery religion is causing."

But a quick look at the past 100 years yields an interesting view into this argument.  Much of the death and destruction in the 20th century was brought about by atheists.  Instead of the cool, scientific, rational approach to human affairs I often read about as an argument for atheism, instead we had war and suffering.  Let's look at some examples.

Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union was an atheist, and his policies killed or enslaved millions.  Chairman Mao in China tried to separate his people from their traditional beliefs in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism with lethal results.  Pol Pot in Cambodia was similar.  Adolph Hitler in World War 2 may have led a predominantly Christian country, but he was not a Christian himself.  Although you might argue that his fascination with the occult constituted a sort of religion.  Apparently atheists have managed to start wars and conduct genocide without the benefit of any militant religious structure.

You could take the argument further and ask if the world is better off discarding religion in favor of atheism.  But when I look around at the breakdown of families, societies and countries, I don't see how we're better off.  While you dissect the tenets of a particular religion, you might miss the fact that most provide a fairly similar set of morals to live by.  Religions provide a set of guidelines for human conduct.

Laws are fine, but if you only abide by them because you're afraid of going to prison, then you can be evil all you want when you know you won't be punished.  And laws don't cover all situations.  For instance, it's not illegal to cheat on your spouse, but most people agree that it's wrong. 

I do not support anyone who uses their religion as an excuse to oppress others.  But I do question this constant assertion that humanity would be better off to cast aside its religions.  Science explains the universe, but it doesn't tell us how to act within it.  For all their problems, at least religions give us a set of guidelines.  Most important, religions teach us to distinguish between good and evil, and give us the courage and motivation to do something about it.

(In case anyone missed the title at the top, the essay above is my opinion.  I support your right to disagree.  The pic is from:  http://intothebush.com)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Missiles of Change

I don't usually watch 'reality' television, but I enjoy History Channel's Top Shot because it is based on concrete shooting skills instead of deviousness or popularity.  Week after week, contestants compete in a variety of target shooting and either perform or go home.  One thing that stuck in my head is during the show's introduction, the announcer says, "There are shots that changed history..."

Were there shots that changed history? I think so.  Unfortunately, for one shot to change the course of a battle or war, it generally means that one shot had to kill someone strategically or politically important.  Depending on what side of the conflict you're on, it's either a victory or a tragedy.  But I think we can divide these historical shots into two types--those that took place during wartime against military leaders, and assassinations of political leaders whether in peace or war.

An early instance of the military model would be the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  While the Normans under William were attacking uphill against the Saxons, a Norman arrow hit Saxon King Harold in the eye and killed him.  It isn't known who fired the specific arrow, but the death of King Harold certainly dismayed the Saxons and threw them into confusion and eventual defeat.  A single arrow opened the way for the Norman conquest of England.

A second example is the naval battle of Trafalgar in 1805 during the Napoleonic wars.  Admiral Nelson, a genius of sea combat, led his ships against a French fleet.  While the two fleets hammered each other at close range, Nelson was shot with a bullet (not a cannon ball) and died on the deck of his ship Victory.  While the British won the battle, the loss of Nelson may have lengthened the wars with Napoleon.

In the second model, we have history changing shots of a more political nature.  Usually these came in the form of assassination, whether by conspiracy or an individual.  The assassination of Abraham Lincoln may not have affected the outcome of the Civil War, but did affect the crucial Reconstruction era after the war.  The assassination of US President John F. Kennedy ensured he would not have a second term in office, and probably had important repercussions in the growing US involvement in Viet Nam.  The shooting of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 by troops who opposed his peace agreement with Israel certainly affected the overall stability in the Middle East and future of Egypt.

So while war and assassination are not civilized ways to bring about change, there is no doubt we can point to specific shots that changed history.  And on a side note, it's interesting that the person who made each of those shots is often forgotten, while the person who died is remembered.

(The pic of the musketeer is found here.  Some info drawn from WAR THROUGH THE AGES by Lynn Montross.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

The NEPTUNE Project

In nature specials and science fiction movies, we always see scientists dive into the ocean with scuba gear, or diving bells or submarines.  But at some point the air runs out and they have to surface.  In other words, science in the sea comes in the form of expeditions rather than a permanent presence.

Canada's NEPTUNE Project has changed that.  Working from the University of Victoria in British Columbia since 2009, scientists have established a series of five underwater research 'nodes' connected by 800 km of cable.  This network includes one node on the inshore shelf, two on the continental slope, one on the abyssal plain and one on the mid-ocean ridge, with the deepest at 2,660 meters.  All connect back to the University of Victoria, where they can send and receive data at 10 gigabytes per second.

Not only does the project enable scientists to continuously study various ocean zones and the creatures in them, but it can also aid in developing tsunami warnings and examine the dynamics of undersea plate shifting.  The multiple devices installed on each mode can collect data on earthquakes, deep sea organisms, hot vent ecosystems and microbes.  They may help us understand not only whales and fish in the region, but how specific events like plankton blooms can impact marine life and the fishing industry.

One of the best aspects of this project is that by 'wiring' it to the Internet, the team at University of Victoria can share their data.  For instance, scientists in Germany have operated an undersea robotic rover on the seafloor off Canada using signals over the Internet.  The NEPTUNE Project even has its own YouTube channel, so people everywhere can watch video of their findings.

NEPTUNE is a 'big science' style project--the sort of thing that is often proposed, but rarely implemented.  However, when we see the flood of useful data that this well-wired project can generate, I think other countries will copy Canada's efforts.  Life on Earth depends very much on the health of our oceans, so the more we understand them, the better stewards we can be.  And help our chances at survival, too.

(I did some initial reading at this Globe and Mail article and at Physorg.com.  Once I found my way to the actual NEPTUNE site, there was plenty of material.  The pic is from NEPTUNE's Flickr page.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

It's a marathon, not a sprint.

This week chimpwithpencil passed 2,000 total pageviews since it started back in April.  Thanks to all of you, the readership has grown and more people are leaving comments.  I like that interactivity and am open to your thoughts and suggestions.

On the fiction writing front, I received my first two reviews of my thriller HIRED GUNS.  In the past, book reviews were the domain of critics employed at large newspapers and a handful of magazines.  Thanks to the Internet and free blogging tools, democracy has reached book reviewing.  Bloggers all over the world read and review books, and for the most part they are free from corporate influence.  Some bloggers receive copies of the books from the authors, while others buy them, but they are not beholden to any one publisher or writer.

Booked Up, a book blog based in the United Kingdom, wrote a thorough review of HIRED GUNS, pointing out the good and also the areas where I need to improve.  This is helpful feedback, and I am going back through the manuscript to fix some flaws. 

Also Chris Rhatigan over at his Death by Killing blog wrote a favorable review.  Chris covers short crime fiction all over the Internet and in print.  He's a busy guy, so I appreciate him taking the time to read my work.

If you've read HIRED GUNS or THE CULTIST, please feel free to leave an honest review at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or on your own blog.  I am always working to improve my craft, and I take your feedback seriously.

Thanks for reading!

(The picture is from:  http://blogs.redcross.org.uk/)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Good Will Hunting versus the Millennium Seven

Back in the year 2000, I read about a big prize for some math problems.  Specifically, the Clay Mathematics Institute compiled a list of seven difficult math problems, and they offered one million dollars for each problem solved.  Eleven years later, I wondered if anyone had won a prize?

In 1900 at a meeting of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, David Hilbert presented a list of 23 math problems that no one had figured out.  By 2000, ten of those problems had been solved, and another seven have solutions but not everyone agrees if they are correct.  Only one of Hilbert's problems, the Riemann hypothesis, made the Millennium list.

Reading the summaries of the seven Millennium problems was bewildering.  I don't understand the symbols, and even the written explanations baffled me.  But the idea that these problems remain unbroken is intriguing.

So how many of the Big Seven have been solved in the last 11 years?

One.

In 2010, the Clay Mathematic Institute awarded Dr. Grigoriy Perelman of St. Petersburg, Russia for solving Poincare's Conjecture, a problem having to do with three dimensional spheres in four dimensional space.  (The picture above is of a Poincare sphere.)  Perelman felt that Richard Hamilton of Columbia University in the US had made an equal contribution, so in 2011 the Clay committee split the prize between the two men. 

Poincare's Conjecture has been around since 1904, but these two finally cracked it.  It makes you wonder how long the other problems will resist solving. 

These problems may sound like the height of theory, and it's natural to wonder what their practical applications are.  I don't know and really cannot even imagine what we can accomplish if we solve them.  But sometimes you have to invent something before you can decide what to do with it.  Like fire.  I figure we had fire before we had cooking.  Maybe before fire it was just a theoretical problem, but after fire, people started finding ways to use it--like cooking, clearing fields, baking clay pots and lighting up the family cave.

So maybe there is fire in one of these math problems, and I wish anyone luck who takes a crack at them. 

(Sources for this article include the Clay Mathematics Institute, Wolfram Alpha, Wikipedia, and Antigravitypower.  The picture is from:  http://spie.org/x32375.xml)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Giant Space Station

A few nights ago I went outside to see the Perseid Meteor Shower.  Unfortunately, the moon was almost full and very bright, and clouds covered much of the night sky, so I didn't see any shooting stars.  However, a buddy of mine had mentioned the International Space Station (ISS) was passing over, so I watched for that.

I've seen the ISS before, but I never really thought about something--it's amazing that humanity has built something in space that's so large we can see it from the ground 220 miles/250 kilometers below without using optics.  Building anything in space is difficult for the simple reason that it takes an enormous amount of fuel to get the pieces up there.  So for every pound/kilogram of building material, you have to expend x number of pounds/kilograms of rocket fuel.

The Russian Federal Space Agency placed the first ISS module in orbit in 1998.  Since then, 15 countries and five space agencies have worked together to build a station that is as long as a football field.  When the Space Shuttle delivered the new Permanent Multipurpose Module to the ISS in March, it brought the total pressurized area of 14 rooms to 35,493 cubic feet/1,005 cubic meters of which about 15,000 cubic feet/425 cubic meters are habitable.

Although the last US module is in place, the Russians plan to add another room to the ISS.  Because the crew of six uses about 4 tons/3630 kilograms of food every six months, resupply is critical.  With the US Space Shuttle fleet retiring, supply will be handled by three automated craft--the Russian Progress, the European Union's Automated Transfer Vehicle and Japan's H-2 Transfer vehicle.  Looking to the future, NASA is working with private companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for possible supply flights.

On some days when we look around the Earth, we see war and hate and suffering.  Things can appear very bleak.  But if you look up and see the International Space Station soaring through the night sky, you will see a powerful example of what we can accomplish when we work together.

(The picture is from http://www.space.com/, which also had two helpful articles by Remy Molina and Denise Chow.  I also used this article at dimensionsguide.com)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Possum and the Horseshoe Crab



This week I read an article which referenced a 1999 article in the Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins about how some mammals are resistant to venom.  These include the opossum, mongoose, meerkat and hedgehog.

Some of us are familiar with meerkats thanks to the Animal Planet show Meerkat Manor.  Rudyard Kipling's classic story Rikki Tikki Tavi from THE JUNGLE BOOK introduced millions to the lightning quick mongoose, and possums and hedgehogs are fairly common in some parts of the world.

It makes sense that possums would develop a resistance to snakes found in their local area.  After all, snakes would find a baby possum just as tasty as a mouse or rat.  But I was surprised to read that possums sometimes eat snakes.  So the competition between the two may also have spurred possums to develop this resistance.

The article mentioned that by examining the components of a possum's blood, scientists might be able to create a universal vaccine or antidote to venom.  This way, it would not be necessary to identify the type of snake after someone is bitten.  However, I don't believe all snake venom works the same way.  And just because a possum in the US has developed resistance to diamondback rattlesnakes found in its area, doesn't mean it would resist venom from an Indian cobra. 

In a related article, the August 2011 issue of National Geographic has a story about using blood from live horseshoe crabs to screen for bacteria.  The blue, copper-rich blood of these crabs is effective at finding harmful bacteria in vaccines and IV fluids.  Luna Shyr's article points out that the crab blood can detect bacterial amounts of one part per trillion, which is amazing.

After blood is extracted, the crabs are returned to the ocean, with a mortality rate of 15 percent.  Horseshoe crabs have been around since before the dinosaurs.  I don't know what the impact of this blood collection is on their total population, but if we want to continue to benefit from its use, perhaps we'd better learn to keep more of them alive? In the same way, I see a lot of dead possums in the road, killed by cars.

We should preserve the animals around us simply because they exist.  However, these two are not attractive animals.  It's one thing to get people to save cute puppies, but possums look like big rats, and horseshoe crabs look like face suckers from the Alien movies.  However, if we find a use for them like the horseshoe crab's blood, it may give people incentive to keep them alive.  Yes, it's a commercial approach, but when something has obvious value it makes it easier to argue for saving it.  And maybe that's what it takes to save humble creatures like the possum and the horseshoe crab.

(The possum pic is from the National Park Service, and the horseshoe crab pic is from Thomas' Marine Biology Blog.)


Friday, August 12, 2011

Technical difficulties

Hello Readers,

Internet in my area has been down since Wednesday night, so I haven't posted or moderated comments.  Sorry about that.  Working on it.

-- Mark

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I cut myself shaving with Occam's Razor

Yesterday when I tried to check my Yahoo email account, I was unable to login.  I retyped my password.  Nope.  Checked to make sure I used the right username since I have more than one email account.  The username was correct, but each time I typed the password I got an error message.

Morning isn't my sharpest time, so I sat and thought about it for a few minutes.  I recalled two weeks ago I received a message from Yahoo that my account may have been compromised and I should choose a new password.  The message and page appeared legitimate so I put in a new password using an online password generator.

But on second thought this sounded suspicious, and I thought I might have walked into a phishing scam.  A phishing scam is an email that tries to convince you to give out private information.  Often the scam email will contain a link to a fake site designed to collect your login information, which is why you should never click on these links.  In my case, I closed the email, typed the yahoo address in manually, and went to their regular site to change my password.

Just as I was congratulating myself for not biting on the phish trap, I tried to login to another account and was denied.  "What? Mr. Worf, shields up, maximum paranoia."  I wondered if somehow I'd been hacked. 

I started to sweat a bit.  Typed in my username and password for a Google gmail account.  Denied.  Typed the password a second time.  And a third time and still couldn't get in.  I was really starting to freak out when I noticed that the long string of gibberish I use for a password looked shorter than usual.

I counted the little black dots that replace the characters in the password window.  Two less than usual.  Typed the password in slowly and noticed it skipped each time I hit the number '6' key.  The '6' key wasn't working.  I went back to my list of passwords and looked through them.  Several of my passwords contain either a '6' or the carat symbol you get with hitting 'shift 6.'

Using the '6' from keypad, I got into a few of my accounts and changed the passwords.  The passwords containing a carat will be more of a problem. 

Occam's Razor is sometimes stated as, "when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better."  Maybe I couldn't get into my email because it was hacked, or I was foolish enough to fall for a phishing scam.  Or maybe it was because the number '6' on my keyboard stopped working.

Three theories that all might result in me not getting into my email, but the '6' key not working was the most simple explanation.

This morning another key on the same row stopped working.  I think it's time to buy a new keyboard.  Thanks Occam!

(A good explanation of Occam's Razor is this article by Phil Gibbs, with an update by Sugihara Hiroshi.  The pic is from: mechanicalforex.com)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Where Change and Influence Converge

Change is a constant, but its speed is variable.  Influence is something we associate with politicians or religious leaders or the rich and powerful.  A person can influence others with a decision, a proclamation or a tweet on Twitter.

Historically, the intersection of change and influence is often battle. 

War is not the best way to effect change and exert influence, but it's a fact that wars and sometimes even a single battle act as pivot points in history.  A battle is a unique situation in which the actions of a few can affect the lives of many.  We may think of the thousands of soldiers involved in a battle, but relative to the population of people waiting on the outcome at home, their numbers are usually small.

Sir Edward Creasy's classic book FIFTEEN DECISIVE BATTLES OF THE WORLD includes an examination of the battle of Marathon.  In 490 BC, King Darius of Persia sent an army under the leadership of satraps Datis and Artaphernes to invade the Greek city states.  Troops from Athens and Plataea responded, and gathered on a hilltop overlooking the plain of Marathon and the shore of the Aegean Sea where the Persians had landed their ships.

It's difficult to get accurate counts of ancient armies, but the Persian forces may have numbered around 100,000, while the Greek army had about 20,000. On that September day, 11 Greek leaders held a conference on the hill.  These men were citizen-soldiers and also elected officials/generals.  Ten represented the ten tribes of Athens, while the eleventh was the Polemarch or War-Ruler elected that year.  

Now the Persians of that era were very successful at war, having spent the previous 50 years conquering much of the known world and establishing a vast empire.  Just days before they'd defeated the Eretrians, and the other Greek states had not sent troops to aid Athens.  Fearful of the Persian numbers and their fierce reputation, five Greek generals voted not to give battle, while five voted to attack.  Callimachus, the War-Ruler, cast the eleventh vote--he voted to descend to the plain of Marathon and fight. 

The Greek army went down and engaged.  The Persians drove the center of the Greek formation back to the hills, but the Greek wings took the opportunity to attack the Persians from both flanks.  The discipline, training and armor of the Greeks drove the lighter-armed Persians back, forcing them to retreat to their ships, and saving Athens.

The influence of one man, Callimachus, drove ten generals and 20,000 soldiers to attack.  Their decision saved hundreds of thousands of Greeks in Athens and the other city states.  This kept Greece free of Persian control and allowed the infant democracies to develop.  Sir Edward Creasy wrote of Marathon, "It secured for mankind the intellectual treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, the liberal enlightenment of the western world..."

Creasy also wrote, "But even those who look upon the Appeal of Battle as occasionally unavoidable in international controversies, concur in thinking it a deplorable necessity, only to be resorted to when all peaceful modes of arrangement have been vainly tried..."

We know our future holds change, and there is no avoiding the influence of the powerful, but let's try to avoid battles when possible.  After all, at Marathon the Greek generals fought alongside their troops.  Two of the 11 generals, including Callimachus, died assaulting the Persian ships.  When is the last time a modern politician died in battle?

Some wars are fought out of necessity.  But optional wars, and those leaders that urge us to engage in them, should be given a very critical look.  For it's ordinary citizens who go to kill and die in modern wars, while the people of influence and power watch from the hilltops.

(The painting is by Brian Palmer.  I found it at http://www.military-art.com/)

Friday, August 5, 2011

2D Codes


A few years ago I noticed a little block of dots at the bottom of my insurance bill and wondered what it was.  Now you see these blocks on business cards, products, coupons, paperwork and all sorts of places.

These blocks are two dimensional bar codes.  The one at the top left is a data matrix code, first developed in 1989.  These codes can hold 2,335 characters of data.

The code on the right is a QR, or Quick Response, code developed in Japan in the 1990s by a company called Denso.  The QR code holds up to 4,296 characters, and I see it a lot more than the older matrix code.  QR codes are oriented with two smaller blocks at the top corners, and one on the bottom left.

Although QR codes have been around for several years, their use exploded for two reasons.  The first is that Denso made the QR open source, so anyone could use them.  This helped make the QR code more popular than the data matrix and other competing codes.

The second reason for their growth is the widespread use of cellular telephones with cameras.  First you need a QR reader application on your phone.  If you focus your phone's camera on a QR code, the reader will interpret the code and send you to an Internet link that may contain information about that particular business, coupons or other data.   

QR codes can do everything from display simple information and open a web page, to initiating a text message or email.  They can even be configured to download a video like a movie trailer, or audio for music.

So next time you're out shopping, look around and I bet you'll spot a lot of these codes.

(I used info from articles at Cognation, QRMe, 2Worksforyou, and cellphone-barcode.com.  The codes above were each made free online.  The data matrix at IDautomation.com, and the QR at qrcode.kaywa.com)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Curious Ekranoplan

The craft pictured above isn't a sea plane.  It's an ekranoplan, or sea skimmer.  And it's a very curious vehicle.

I first read about the ekranoplan in one of William Gibson's novels.  Gibson is usually three steps ahead, and one step diagonal, of most writers and I admire how he integrates wonderfully obscure technology into his work.  But in this case, I had trouble mentally picturing a vehicle that skimmed above the water.

An ekranoplan isn't a hovercraft.  A hovercraft uses fans to float on a cushion of air.  And it isn't a hydrofoil, which is more like a vehicle on skis.  An article in Global Aircraft gives an excellent example.  If you've ever watched a seabird cruise just above the surface of the water while rarely moving its wings, you've witnessed the 'wing in ground' effect.  A winged vehicle running very close to the surface benefits because the gap between the wing and the ground is small enough for the air to be compressed.

While the idea of ekranoplans goes back to the 1930s, the Soviet Union was the first to deploy them for military use from the 1960s through the 1980s.  The Soviets developed different models for use as transports, cargo carriers and anti-submarine craft in the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea.  One of the appealing military virtues of the ekranoplan was that it flew so low it was difficult for radar to detect.  The largest Soviet ekranoplan, the KM, weighed 540 tons when loaded and could travel at over 400 kilometers (or 249 miles) per hour.     

The amazing thing about ekranoplans is that they can carry heavy cargo at high speed but use less fuel than an airplane traveling the same distance and speed.  This is why I think the design may be reappear in the near future.  An article in Gizmohighway pointed out that small ekranoplans were used in commercial trials in the Bahamas and the USA in the mid-1990s.

With the costs of fuel rising, I think companies might look at the ekranoplan as a way to move cargo, and perhaps people, across large lakes and inland seas.  So someday we may all have a chance to ride on one of these curious vehicles.

(First pic is from olbri2007.narod.ru.  Second is from englishrussia.com.  The explanation of wing in ground effect is from Wikipedia.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Kinect with people.

What is Kinect? Kinect is a motion sensing device that works with the Xbox game console and allows people to use their movements to play.  For example, if you move your arm, the character on screen throws a ball.

Why is this important to non-gamers? It's important because people are hacking the Kinect for activities beyond games.  And in this case I mean 'hacking' in a good way--as in learning to use a tool and then repurposing it for something new.

Microsoft released the Kinect in November 2010 to compete with Nintendo's popular Wii system.  People saw the potential of the device and wanted to use it for things other than games.  A company offered a bounty for an open-source driver to use with the Kinect.  The signals from Microsoft were mixed, and they may have even taken part in the bounty, but soon people were uploading videos of their Kinect projects to the Internet.

Having looked at several sites with "Top 10 Kinect Hacks" or "Dozen Best Kinect Hacks," I saw a lot of creativity and neat tricks, but not much I thought was practical.  Then I found this video made by Luis de Matos which demonstrates a robotic shopping cart that follows a person in a wheelchair around a store.  The first part of the video shows how difficult it is to push a conventional cart around when the person is also trying to propel their own wheelchair, and the second half shows how a robotic cart using the Kinect makes things so much easier.  Amazing.



In June of this year, Microsoft released a non-commercial software development kit (SDK).  Normally, SDKs are for companies to use making games for a particular console.  But in this case, Microsoft is putting these tools in the hands of people who want to experiment and innovate.  Which means that people like de Matos can make things to help others.  And that's very cool.

(I first saw the shopping cart video at Popsci, and Wikipedia has a detailed article on the Kinect.  The pic of people playing the Kinect is from theelectricgeneration. You can also see the same video with an English explanation beneath at vimeo.)