All posts by lindsayrgwatt

A box and his box

The Blinky Box

Last year this awesome story by Miria Grunick appeared in one of my feeds. I was immediately inspired to create one for Cam and this year I finally built him his very own Blinky Box.

I made a few changes to her design: a switch in the upper left toggles a solid color vs. flashing lights mode. Plus the knob in the upper right rapidly changes the frequency of flashing.

I had the top laser cut as I have no idea how to cut a plastic box. (If you’re in Seattle, get it done at Metrix Create Space so you can watch them do it – and it only costs $7 or so)

The Box

Here’s a video of it in action:

If you want to make your own, the code’s on Github; feel free to fork as it’s definitely not optimal. I also included the .SVG for the laser cutting; I recommend making the holes for the arcade buttons a little bigger as mine stick – 0.5mm should be enough.

You can get the bill of materials on Miria’s Github repo; if you make my version you’ll also need a switch.

For anyone who tries it and gets stuck, here are some photos of some of the major breadboarded items. Should be enough to get you over any hump:

Wires

More Wires

Google Maps: Confusing Time & Place

One of the most incredible pieces of software developed in the past few years in Google Street View. The notion that you can use your computer to see what a neighborhood looks like is literally magic. What’s more, you can virtually drive through the neighborhood, experiencing it like a local.

I mean, a person had to drive a car to take that photo, a machine had to stitch all those photos together and it’s now available to you anywhere you can get a decent web connection.

The mind boggles.

What’s even more mind boggling to me is that sometimes your linear trip down the street turns into a trip down memory lane. As you seamlessly slide your “drive” from place to place along the street you suddenly find yourself whisked through time. Drivers change, leaves fall off trees – but more interestingly, sometimes entire cityscapes change.

A building disappears and its replacement reappears or you change an angle and suddenly there’s a construction site.

This happened to me recently looking at New York’s Astor Place.

I wanted to see the new building that’s going to house IBM’s Watson group. Here is it, looking from Astor Place & Lafayette:

Watson BuildingI drove my virtual car across Lafayette so that I could get a closer look:

Missing Building

But wait; what building is that? That yellow building wasn’t there a second ago…

Let’s drive a bit further and look backwards:

Watson Building Under ConstructionTime has shifted yet again and now we see the building under construction.

On the one hand the techie in me thinks there’s nothing interesting here: Google’s servers will update their imagery over time and eventually become consistent.

The romantic in me likes to imagine a scenario where the algorithm occasionally burps and historical images begin to appear when you least expect them. 25 years from now you’re trying to find a place on the map when suddenly a long-vanished building appears only to disappear when you turn the virtual vehicles view.

Or perhaps there’s a new feature that turns Google Maps into a virtual version of Ed Ruscha’s All The Buildings on the Sunset Strip.

He’s been going back every few years to the strip to update the photos but now Google will have done it globally on a regular basis. You’ll literally have a map of all places in the world for regular intervals since 2005.

SIM As A Service

One of the things that interests me in 2014 is whether or not T-Mobile is going to be sold. I work at a company that, among other things, runs a virtual network on top of TMUS’s network-so I’m definitely interested in what might happen.

I keep thinking though, who else might want to buy T-Mobile’s network?

The one dark horse I keep imagining is Amazon (this might be bias induced by the fact that I both live in Seattle and my wife works there-although she’d know nothing of their telecom plans).

Now, why on earth would AMZN buy TMUS?

First thought: Prime.

You could imagine a world where being a Prime customer means that your Kindle Fire comes with unlimited Prime video anywhere in North America. Ditto for Amazon music served up by the cloud. Partner with Facebook for them to make their messenger app free.

Yet another way to get people to pay $79 a year.

Plus it also facilitates the launch of a Kindle phone (which could also include a free amount of minutes/data as part of a Prime membership).

But what about existing T-Mobile customers?

Simple: make them an MVNO. Rather than converting them all to Amazon, sell the T-Mobile brand and customer base to their management team and let them run it.

But Amazon could take it further: offer SIM as a service via AWS.

Amazon could create a new category for data-driven devices that piggyback off its existing infrastructure.

Want to create a network of sensors that measure air quality across your city? No problem, just buy 500 SIMs from AWS and their pay-as-you-consume data service can be added to each unit.

Cost too much? Just call up the console to shut off a couple of units.

And data is free if you pass it inside the AWS cloud.

Amazon could literally open up an entirely new category of services and end up owning the Internet of Things – even though all they set out to do was let people watch video for free.

Let’s see what happens to TMUS.

Revoltingly Delicious

The other day I was exploring Little Saigon and found myself in a grocery store where I discovered this:

20140104-135551.jpg
Yes, durian is now available as jam. And it’s not your everyday breakfast experience.

When you open the jar, it’s hard not to gag as a whiff of durian greets you. It’s like someone let something rot in your kitchen.

As you spread it on your bread a bit of buyer’s remorse sets in. Why did I spend $5 on this imported crap? Is it fair to subject bread to this? Does bread have feelings?

When you go to eat your toast, you let it pause for a second above your lips and the aroma starts to trickle into the back of your throat. A gag is imminent if you don’t bite, so you take the plunge.

And the world instantly changes. A sweet, smooth flavor rolls over your tongue. And as you chew then swallow a slightly smoky sweetness lingers in your mouth.

Revolting the delicious. Revoltingly delicious. And not for everyone or everyday but a great find.

Great Science Writing

If you like science and want to read more about it, you should be reading Nautilus. And if you like Nautilus, you should subscribe to its quarterly for more unique writing.

I’m spending my Saturday morning flipping through it and there’s a beautiful essay by Caspar Henderson on the current frontiers of our knowledge.

Here are a few reminders of just how little we know:

Working memory and episodic memory are widespread among animals, as are social inclinations born of environmental pressures that favor their evolution. The distinction between cognition and emotion is also increasingly seen as a false one. Crows and other members of the corvid family have self-awareness and a theory of mind. Octopuses can solve some problems as well as 3-year-old children, not to mention perform feats of dexterity far beyond the scope of humans. Chimpanzees grieve for non-related individuals, and records of their reactions to stimuli such as a majestic waterfall and the birth of a baby chimp suggest that they may be capable of a sense of wonder.

And:

The microbiologist Lynn Margulis was rejected by about 15 leading journals before her pathbreaking paper on symbiosis was published in 1967. She argued that the complex cells of protists, plants, and animals resulted from earlier and simpler organisms merging and cooperating. The ancestors of chloroplasts and mitochondria, the organelles in plants and animal cells that provide them energy, were once free-living bacteria that larger organisms then swallowed. But instead of becoming lunch, the bacteria took up residence, like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Unlike Jonah, however, they paid for their keep by performing a new role as ‘batteries.’

Today the evidence for Margulis’s theory of endo-symbiosis, as it has become known, is overwhelming. The physician and essayist Lewis Thomas captured the essential point in an essay published in the 1970s, proposing “some biomythology.” A bestiary for modern times, he argued, should be a micro-bestiary, since microbes teach us an essential lesson: “There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along whenever possible.”

And finally this intriguing thought:

If extraterrestrial life does exist, how “weird” might it be? The adjective can be used in a semi-precise way to mean any life form with which, unlike everything we know of on Earth, we do not share a common ancestor. On the principle that life can evolve or endure where there is a flow of energy to be harvested, one of the most statistically likely places is in the vicinity of white dwarf stars common enough objects in the universe—where collisions with dark matter will continue to provide a steady trickle of energy until the universe is 10^25 years old, or about 10,000 trillion times long as it took life to appear on Earth. Life on these stars, if it were to exist, would have a very slow metabolism and rate of consciousness, taking 1,000 years to complete a single thought.

Give it a read; you will definitely learn something new.

Things Are Getting Faster

One of the common themes of life today is that it’s getting faster. It’s not that time has actually sped up, rather the rate of change in society has sped up.

This is really happening; it’s not just crotchety old men pining for the days of martini lunches. One way to measure this trend is through technology adoption rates.

This chart from somewhere on the Internet shows how long it took for different technologies to reach the same portion of America’s population:
20131031-202524.jpg
You don’t have to be a genius to see that it’s getting faster.

If you’re a science fiction fan, the acceleration continues inexorably until it’s infinite and we hit something called The Singularity. Who knows what happens then; perhaps we turn into pure energy (Didn’t realize Powder was a documentary) or we all upload our brains to computers and colonize the stars. Or maybe the rate of change stabilizes and we just end up in a period of constant – but not accelerating – change (I’ll bet on that).

This trend has some unique implications. We see, for instance, that it’s harder to stay successful. How many overnight Internet celebrities have appeared over the past few years? Similarly, the Fortune 500 lost is turning over faster then ever. Glory is increasingly fleeting.

Some more evidence of this:

  • ebooks-a category that basically didn’t exist six years ago-have almost stopped growing. We went from no one having them to saturation in the blink of an eye
  • Apple’s iPad sales are flat; they’re selling tons but the rate’s not accelerating. It may be that everyone who needs a super high end tablet has one-and it only took 3 years

I find this fascinating. You’d think the iPad is a growth hit that you could take to the bank for 10 years; now it looks like some dramatic rework is required. Ditto if you’re Amazon with your Kindles.

What I take away is that we’re in an era where we can’t rest on our laurels and we’ll have to constantly adopt new ideas and learn a lot of new things. In fact, resistance to new ideas (or at least technology) could potentially become a leading indicator of future o failure.

I’ve given up trying to predict what I’ll be doing in five years time and instead focus on learning lots of new things and meeting interesting people. We’ll see where the journey goes.

We Live In The Future

When I was a kid, there was this elusive thing called The Future. It was this beacon visible just over the horizon where things would be different. Technology would bring knowledge and power to the masses. Poverty would disappear. We’d have lots of leisure time. Or maybe the world would collapse into a dystopian nightmare powered by that same technology.

But there was no date when this would arrive. Authors and actors provided the imagery (a lot of white and robots) but there was no ETA or it was so far in the future that it was laughable.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to believe that we’re living in The Future.

I’m writing this blog post on a wireless keyboard that’s communicating with a tablet that’s connected to billions. If I desired, I could reach out to most of those people. I can order a near infinite number of physical goods to my house from any connected place on the planet; and I can get an update on where the good is every step of its journey to me. If I didn’t want to wait, I could order a design instead and print or mill the good myself with only the push of a few buttons. If I hunt around, I can watch or listen to almost any popular music or video ever created.

I can turn the lights of my house on and off from this tablet; ditto for adjusting the temperature. If I wanted, I could connect multiple cameras to watch live what’s happening in my backyard. Or I could use a $200 robot controlled by this tablet to be my camera instead.

I can go to work in a fully electric, zero emission car. I can pull out my phone and, with one tap, summon several different types of cars to my current location and not have to pull out cash or card to pay. Several billionaires are competing to get me into space at an affordable price. I can purchase a kit that lets me build a basic brain-controlled robot. And there’s a revolution in biology underway that could redefine how we think of the living world (think heartier crops that use less water and personalized medicine).

Plus this world isn’t restricted solely to the rich West. The recent rise of Indian and China has brought The Future to literally billions (and done more to alleviate poverty than anything else in history). And they’re building their own version of The Future.

But this blog post isn’t meant to be some hagiography of technology and capitalism. The combination of pollution, inexorable warming and increasing wealth inequality (despite rising absolute standards of living for everyone) means that The Future is not guaranteed to be all unicorns and rainbows. I worry about governments spying on everyone and armed drones are truly terrifying; it’s also not clear what social compact we’ve created by trading entertainment for privacy with large corporations.

In fact, The Future is a lot messier than what was promised by those actors and authors mentioned earlier. Their future was a beacon that shone because it had emerged from a world that did not exist. There was no path from the then-world to that future; it was more like a schism had occurred and a new, shinier, better future had emerged from some void.

But real life doesn’t work like that. We’re surrounded by 500 year old buildings and crappy condos just went up and be antiquated in 25 years. We have wireless broadband but can’t always get the physical kind. Regulations can mean that inventions stop at a an artificially created physical border. The Future emerges from what exists today; it evolves.

The Chinese never actually had a curse that said “may you live in interesting times” but we really do. I, for one, relish it. I love living in The Future even if I don’t fully know what it’s going to bring. In fact, I know that as I write this more of it’s arriving; I just don’t know what it is yet. And I can’t wait to see it.