Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘software’

13 MAY, 2010

The Future of First-Response Environments

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Displays for disasters, or what sensors have to do with survival.

In just a few short months this year, the world has seen more disasters than its fair share — devastating earthquakes, floods and a destructive oil spill, each requiring different strategies of emergency management. And this month, Organizing Armageddon, the excellent Wired article by Vince Beiser about lessons learned from the Haiti earthquake, exposed the many and worrisome shortcomings of disaster relief efforts. From infrastructure to technology to tactical coordination, today’s emergency management is in dire need of an upgrade.

Luckily, Precision Information, a division of Homeland Security’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is developing ambitious new first-response cooperation environments that focus not on a single piece of technology but, rather, on a suite of interconnected tools that offer targeted access to information and sophisticated decision-making aid for emergency response.

From predictive modeling to automated recommendations to augmented reality, this concept video is designed to serve as a blueprint for research in the next decade, exploring some of the possibilities in addressing key research challenges.

For a closer look at the many emergining technologies and concepts alluded to in the video — including ubiquitous displays, crowdsourcing, pervasive sensor networks and adaptive user interfaces — be sure to see the annotated version.

via information aesthetics

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06 MAY, 2010

Google Chrome Speed Tests

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What a keytar, an electrocuted boat and an Idaho potato have to do with how fast you surf.

For their latest release of Chrome, which purports to be the fastest browser around, the good folks at Google and BBH decided to test just how fast “fast” was. So they pitted Chrome’s 2700 frames per second against the speeds of more familiar things, things people would expect to be fast — a bullet, a potato, sound waves, lighting.

To test that, the team constructed a series of what closely resembles Rube Goldberg machines, each setting off a series of simultaneous reactions triggering both Chrome and the object it’s being benchmarked against. The results — and the effort that went into them — are beyond impressive.

The potato gun test took 51 takes to get the equipment and the rendering working precisely right — 51 new potatoes, reloads and clean graters. There was a moment when the whole team went quiet as the Tesla Coil was removed from the box for the first time; no one was quite sure exactly what we’d bitten off with that one, and — even with ear defenders — the sound of the Coil as it made it’s first 4.2m volt arcs was extraordinary. For a few seconds no one said a word, then we got to work and set up the experiment. ” ~ Ben Malbon, BBH

What makes the effort interesting, beyond the pure stunt value, is that it demonstrates two increasingly important things: In “measuring” something from computer science through physics, mechanical engineering and photography, the effort epitomizes the fertile cross-pollination of displines; it also illustrates the need for creating a new language for the data age and translating these parameters of digital culture into terms more relevant to and thus comprehensible by humans — something we’ve also seen in the flourishing field of data visualization, which translates alienating, incomprehensible algorithms and numbers into visual representations that humanize the information and make it more digestible.

As recent Chrome converts, we can attest to the browser’s speediness and commend the creative team for contextualizing it so brilliantly. But we must point out that when it comes to your web-browsing experience, browser speed is still a negligible factor compared to actual internet speed — and, we’re sorry to say, using Chrome’s speed-potato on Verizon “high speed internet” is like pouring mashed potatoes through a cocktail straw.

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12 FEBRUARY, 2010

Highlights from TED 2010: Day Two

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Suspended animation, augmented reality, and what sheep’s knuckles have to do with the future of cultural problem-solving.

We’ve been busy live-tweeting from TED 2010, so yesterday’s highlights come mostly in photos and quotes — see Twitter for play-by-play updates.

SESSION 1: REASON

Be skeptical. Ask questions. Get proof. Don’t take anything for granted. But when you get proof, accept it. We have a hard time doing that. ~ Michael Specter

Science tells us what we can value, but it never tells us what we ought to value. ~ Sam Harris

AIDS researcher Elizabeth Pisani shows the remarkable and life-saving effects of HIV treatment, but says that, contrary to popular belief, treatment is not all the prevention we need. In fact, it leads the infected to take their guards down, so they become less careful, which can be dangerous.

Pisani’s book, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS, sounds fascinating and eye-opening.

Pisani shows some counterintuitive HIV stats

Nicholas Christakis, whose social contagion studies we tweeted some time ago, talked about

Christakis’ book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, is a sociology and digital anthropology must-read.

Christakis calls obesity a 'multicentric epidemic,' reduced not to the behavior of individuals but to that of the 'human superorganism.'

SESSION 5: PROVOCATION

Ex-CIA covert operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson shares Global Zero, her advocacy for eliminating nuclear weapons.

One thing our country needs is better political debates. We need to rediscover the lost art of political argument. ~ Michael Sandel

If we weren't afraid our servers might go down tomorrow, we'd dare say 4chan founder Christopher 'moot' Poole was endearing, but left us underwhelmed and missing a connect-the-dots idea. Hypothetically speaking.

Kevin Bales reveals some shocking facts about modern-day slavery: Today, there are 27,000 people in real, physical slavery. He points to four main causes: Overpopulation, extreme poverty, vulnerability of disadvantaged groups, and corruption.

'What enables slavery is the absence of the rule of law. It lets people use violence with impunity.' ~ Kevin Bales

Kevin advocates “freedom dividend” — letting people out of slavery and letting them work for themselves, which causes local communities to flourish. He says the total cost of enduring freedom for those 27,000 contemporary slaves is $10.8 billion, which is how much the US spent shopping this past holiday season.

We stand wholeheartedly behind Chris Anderson’s recommendation for Bales’ chilling and fascinating book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

A TED first: Mark Jacobson and Stewart Brand (whose compelling new book, Whole Earth Discipline, we reviewed recently) entered a good old fashioned debate on the merits of nuclear power.

Brand for, Jacobson against

If all of the electricity in your lifetime came from nuclear, waste would fit in a Coke can. ~ Stewart Brand

Each got 6 minutes to defend his stance, followed by an audience grill and refuting arguments.

To power the entire world with wind you will need only about 1% of US land area. ~ Mark Jacobson

Despite his charisma, Brand 'lost' in the end -- the audience skew moved from 75/25 in favor of nukes in the beginning of the debate to 65/35 by the end.

SESSION 6: INVENTION

The Extraordinary Legion of Dancers, LXD, were extraordinary indeed.

LXD received the most enthusiastic standing ovation at TED 2010 yet.

Though without the impact of a live performance, you can see for yourself:

When I dance, I want people to question the reality of what they’re seeing. ~ Madd Chadd

Game designer Jane McGonigal delivered some staggering statistics on gaming: Since World of Warcraft launched, we’ve spent 5.33 million years solving it; to put this in time perspective, 5.33 million years ago, the first humans stood up.

In the game world, we become the best version of ourselves. ~Jane McGonigal

Today’s kids, McGonigal pointed out, spend some 10,000 hours gaming by the time they turn 21. At the same time, the average child with perfect attendance spends 10,800 hours in school by graduation — so there’s a parallel “education” going on. She advocates for using social games as something bigger than escapism from reality — a cultural advancement tool putting gamers’ problem-solving talents to work. She demoes World Without Oil, a collaborative social game made in 2007.

Ancient dice made out of sheep's knuckles, invented in Libya, are world's first recorded gaming device.

McGonigal premieres Urgent Evoke, a game developed in partnership with the World Bank. If you complete it, you get certified by the World Bank as “social innovator”.

Music icon David Byrne, a cultural hero of ours.

Byrne says people in 19th-century opera houses used to yell at each other just like they did at CBGB's in the 70's.

Photosynth mastermind Blaise Aguera y Arcas demoes some remarkable Augmented Reality technologies using Microsoft's Bing

Inventor Gary Lauder says energy efficiency is about more than just vehicles: It's also about the road. He points out that converting a traffic light into a roundabout -- something well-adopted in Europe, but tragically scarce here in the US -- reduces accidents by 40%. He proposes a new hybrid sign that blends a Stop sign and a Yield one.

In the developing world, 10-50% of vaccines spoil before delivery. Kids die. ~Nathan Myhrvold

Polymath Nathan Myhrvold delivers some known but still chilling statistics about malaria — it sickens 250 million people a year; every 43 seconds a child in Africa dies — and demonstrates a radical new way of fighting the disease: By laser-blasting infected mosquitoes.

Myhrvold orchestrates an incredible on-stage demonstration, wherein a mosquito is shot by a laser beam in a glass tank.

We've stitched together the slow-motion sequence of the mosquito blast. Click the image to look closer.

SESSION 7: BREAKTHROUGH

Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird, amazing as usual.

Stephen Wolfram, creator of revolutionary semantic search engine Wolfram|Alpha, argues raw computation combined with built-in knowledge changes the economics of the web and democratizes programming. He talks about the principle of computational equivalence — the idea that even incredibly simple systems can do complex computation.

Wolfram says you don't have to go very far in the computational universe to start finding candidate universes for our own.

For the first time, Microsoft Labs’ revolutionary Pivot software is availble for the world to tinker with.

MacArthur genius fellow Mark Roth admits he didn’t know what TED was until Chris invited him to talk, but we quickly forgive him after hearing his incredible — literally — and surprisingly grounded sci-fiish work in “suspended animation,” a slowing life process and makes a living being appear dead without harming, then reanimates it. In layman’s terms, resurrection.

The amazing TED Fellows are a mind-blowingly multi-talented group, working in anything from crowdsourced citizen journalism to e-waste management to humanitarian documentary film-making.

For live coverage of today’s and and tomorrow’s TED talks, follow us on Twitter. And keep an eye on the TED website as the first of this year’s talks begin being uploaded.

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12 JANUARY, 2010

FaceSense: Mind-reading from MIT

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70’s-style mind-reading for the digital age, or why we all say one thing and mean another.

We have a longstanding fascination with the human face and the wealth of data that it holds. Now, the Affective Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab (another Brain Pickings darling) has developed FaceSense — a software application that detects head and face gestures in real time, analyzes them and deduces information about the person’s emotional disposition and mental state.

The principle, of course, is nothing new — back in the late 70’s, legendary psychologist Paul Ekman pioneered FACS, the Facial Actions Coding System, which is used to this day by anyone from academic researchers to the CIA to draw information about cognitive-affective states based on the micromuscle contractions of the human face. Though the MIT project doesn’t explicitly disclose it, we bet the data encoding is based, at least to some degree, on FACS.

But what makes FaceSense different and important is that it enables the extraction of such cognitive-affective information from pre-recorded video. And in the midst of all the neuromarketing hype — which is, for the most part, just that: hype — it offers an interesting model for collecting consumer psychology insight remotely, a scalable and useful tool for the age of telecommuting and sentiment analysis. What’s more, it helps bypass the quintessential unreliability of self-report in product testing.

Its applications can, of course, extend far beyond the marketing industry. An accurate disposition detection model for video can be used in anything from analyzing politicians’ televised appearances to testing news anchors for bias. And, judging by the abundance of all things video at CES this year, FaceSense has firmly planted its feet in a rich and ever-expanding space.

In 2009, we spent more than 240 hours a month bringing you Brain Pickings. That’s over 2,880 hours for the year, over which we could’ve seen 29 feature-length films, listened to 72 music albums or taken 960 bathroom visits. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right.





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21 DECEMBER, 2009

Mobile Mobile: The Christmas Tree Retought

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Dusty phones, giant chandeliers, and a post-modern Christmas tree that tweets.

This month, interactive artist James Theophane was tasked with creating a holiday experience that embodied the spirit of collaboration for London ad agency Lost Boys. When he heard that there had been an agency-wide cell phone upgrade two months earlier, leaving behind fifty old phones, Theophane decided to upcycle the old phones into a reinterpretation of the idea of the Christmas tree and its role as a communal focal point.

The result was Mobile Mobile, a giant interactive chandelier, where each hanging phone plays a different note of a Christmas carol and flashes in time.

The elaborate scheme works by assigning a tone to each phone and making it individually addressable by a computer to create the choral arrangement, bringing the choir of devices to life.

Visitors and onlookers can “play” the installation from their browser, and it has also been wired to respond to tweets.

Indulge your inner geek with a behind-the-scenes look at the rather impressive production process. And if you have an old phone lying around, unless you can wire it up into a brilliant interactive chandelier, why not consider donating it to Hope Phones?

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