Filed under “Science”

July 8, 2015

My Letter From Oliver Sacks

I’ve just written a longform article for The Morning News about the time I got a letter from Oliver Sacks. But it’s about so much more. It’s a little bit science, a little bit personal essay, and a tiny bit biography. I’ve never fully told this story before, and it’s the first time I’ve shown anyone the letter.

Go read it!

May 3, 2013

Idea: A Natural History T-Shirt

I saw this drawing the other day on an informational sign about ungulates at the American Museum of Natural History. They should really put this on t-shirts to sell in the gift shop.

March 21, 2013

An Inventor For Math And Magic Fans

This week’s episode of INVENTORS is about Mark Setteducati, a magician, artist, and one of the founders of the Gathering For Gardner (the biennial festival honoring mathematician and writer Martin Gardner). His clever toys and puzzles incorporate principles of math and magic.

In the video, he talks about hexaflexagons. If you’re at all a curious person, be sure to check out Vi Hart’s fantastic three part series about hexaflexagons on her YouTube channel.

February 20, 2013

The Gutenberg Eyebrow

There’s a story being told around the internet this week about a 15th Century manuscript which was recently found to have paw prints across two pages from a cat that must have walked across it while the ink was still fresh. I’m reminded of a little-known story about another 15th Century book that was found to have evidence of its creation embedded in the pages: a Gutenberg Bible.

A complete edition of the Gutenberg Bible is very rare. Only a couple dozen are still known to exist (the Morgan Library in Manhattan is hogging three of them). But some copies were broken up and sold piecemeal over the years, so individual pages are not as rare and are occasionally sold at auction.

About 14 years ago, while I was a photographer at Christie’s auction house, a particularly interesting Gutenberg Bible page came up for sale. While it was being prepared for auction, someone noticed a tiny hair resting on the page. Upon closer inspection, it was found to have become dislodged from where it was embedded beneath the ink. There was a clear line left behind on the page from where the hair had lifted the ink when it became dislodged.

This meant that the hair had been there since the ink was put on the page.

What if it was Johann Gutenberg’s hair? Could you imagine what that would mean for the value of this page? More likely, we guessed it belonged to someone who worked for him, or perhaps even an animal that was hanging around the printing press. But still, it was an incredible find.

I recall that the hair was delicately handled so that it could be analyzed.

This is how it was eventually described at auction:

Eyebrow hair, 12 mm, COMPLETE with bulb at one end and natural taper at the other, blond or white, [middle of the 15th century]. Soiled with printer’s ink over a segment approximately 2 mm in length.

Provenance: The present hair was formerly adhered to the surface of this leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, where it was held to the paper by the printing ink. It lay under the ink when the leaf was received by Christie’s and was inadvertently dislodged in the course of cataloguing for this sale. The impression left by the hair in the surface of the paper is clearly visible at II Cor. 7:10, as is the furrow of white across the first letter “t” of the word tristitia, where the ink which lay over the hair came off with it.

The hair must have dropped onto the forme after it was inked and before the page was printed. It is therefore presumably a body hair, probably an eybrow hair, from one of the pressmen in Gutenberg’s shop — conceivably from the master himself.

The estimate for the page including eyebrow hair was $10,000 - $15,000. The final price was $64,625.

February 7, 2013

Inventor Portrait: Esther Takeuchi

One issue I’m conscious of in my Inventor Portraits series is that it’s not very gender balanced. Of the forty-something inventors I’ve photographed and interviewed so far, only eight are women. There have been other women under consideration, but in an effort to keep the inventions varied, I’ve passed on some that were too similar. I can only have so many women who invent products for the closet, baby room, or kitchen before it begins to give the impression that women only come up with domestic inventions. Those kinds of inventions are certainly important and useful, but my project strives to be broader in its subject matter.

So when I reached out to Esther Takeuchi, a chemical engineer whose life-saving developments in batteries for implantable medical devices have saved millions of lives, I was delighted that she said yes. She’s a terrific role model for women in science, and yet she expresses her own frustrations with exclusion in her field.

Note: If you like these videos, it would mean a great deal if you subscribe to the YouTube channel and/or share them with other people who might find them interesting. Thanks so much.

August 1, 2011

Neil Illusions

Forty years ago, in the April 1971 issue of New Scientist magazine, a new type of optical illusion was described: Neil Illusions, named for the man who discovered them, Allan Neil, of the Institute of Behavioral Research at Texas Christian University.

Here’s how Allan Neil described this new category of illusions in the article:

These new illusions, in sharp contrast to those of the 19th century, do not violate the invariance of parity, charge conjugation or time reversal. Full scale research has not yet begun on the information-processing mechanisms which respond to the subtle factors in these illusions, but the preliminary studies have not overestimated their importance.

Here are the examples he gave:

Amazing. You can read the entire article as it appeared in the original issue online at Google Books. (The issue also has an advertisement for the Beckman DB-GT Spectrophotometer, which has the slogan, BECKMAN CAN HELP — with spectroscopy.)

I think more research needs to be done in this field. I’m sure there are other undiscovered Neil Illusions out there. Every year the Neural Correlate Society holds a contest to find the Best New Optical Illusions. I think they should add a category for the best Neil Illusion.

February 8, 2011

A 30-Year Contact Print on Construction Paper

[cross-posted from my too-infrequently-updated photography blog]

I was in Arizona a couple weeks ago to shoot two more people for my Inventor Portraits Project. My parents live in Arizona, so I took the opportunity to visit them and go through some old boxes that have been taking up space in my old bedroom.

In my closet, I found a photo of me that was taken almost 30 years ago. It had been taped to a piece of green construction paper and placed in a cheap plastic frame around 1982. It hung that way on a wall in my bedroom for about 15 years. When it was hung up, it looked like this:

By the time I took the photo down in 1997, indirect sunlight had faded the construction paper from green to a sort of salmon-like orange. I digitally restored it to the original green for the image above, but actually the background had faded like this:

When I found it in my closet during my recent visit, I decided there was no reason to keep the photo in the bulky plastic frame any longer. It should go in an album, or a better frame. When I separated the photo from the paper, this was revealed hidden underneath:

How wonderful is that? Over all that time hung on the wall, sunlight had bleached the construction paper everywhere it could. But since it couldn’t penetrate the darker areas of the photo, the corresponding parts of the construction paper underneath remained their original color.

Any light-sensitive surface can be used to make a photo, and I’ve seen everything used from leaves to grass. But I don’t remember seeing photos printed on construction paper, even though I know they’re sometimes used to make photograms as an activity for kids. But I did a little googling and found a couple other people who made a print on construction paper using similar methods, although deliberately and not over quite so long a time.

January 3, 2011

Idea: Crowdfund a mission to put a monolith on the moon

The goal: Erect a monolith on the moon. (See 2001 for reference).

Is there an upper limit to the amount of money you can raise on Kickstarter? Because I guesstimate this project will require about half a billion dollars. So I only need to find 5 million geeks-like-me worldwide who think this is a cool enough idea to donate 100 bucks. That seems pretty doable, especially considering Kickstarter’s rule that nobody has to pay anything if I can’t raise all the money I need, so people can donate with confidence. But maybe my estimate is way off. Here’s my thinking:

Through the power of Google, I found a few estimates on what it would take to get to the moon. They ranged widely. In 2005, a private company estimated that they could send you on a roundtrip fly-by for $100 million, and another private company figured they could land on the moon for $10 billion. My idea doesn’t have to be a manned mission, but it does need to actually land on the moon and erect a monolith. It only has to be a one-way trip, though, which should keep it relatively cheap.

Last year, a kid and his dad in Brooklyn sent their cell phone into space and back on a shoestring budget. Okay, so the moon is about 3,272 times further than the edge of space, but it’s still inspiring.

Nobody would crowdfund a trip to send someone else to the moon, because there’s no incentive. Why should I pay a hundred bucks for you to go to the moon? Why do you get to be the lucky one? But this project is something nerdy folks worldwide could get behind. It’s space exploration and development through private enterprise, and a tribute to great sci-fi. And we can all enjoy the process and the result. Also: Everyone who donates gets a Monolith Project sticker.

So what would be involved in such a project? I have no idea where to begin, except that I know it would cost a lot of money. The money raised would probably be used for engineering, fuel, permits, design, mission control staff, supplies, tools, rent for a place to physically build the thing, other fees and salaries, etc. I’d probably need to start with a project manager, someone to oversee everything. In fact, maybe a lot of the work needs to be done before the fundraising just to figure out how much the whole thing would cost. Maybe I need to have a kickstarter project just to raise the research and development money to figure out how much money I would need for the main project.

Maybe this project should piggyback with some other entity that’s already sending a ship to the moon. Surely there’s a government or private group planning a moon trip that has room for a monolith on board in exchange for some money, right? Maybe that would make this idea less expensive.

What would the design of the monolith be? Aside from having 1:4:9 dimensions, how big should it be? I guess it should be hollow so that it’s light and requires less fuel to carry. I can envision a few monolith designs that pack up flat for transport. Some consideration should be given to how it will be erected. Will it drop down on a parachute and land in one piece? Will it land in a ball and inflate upon landing? Will it require robots to go down and assemble it?

What do you think? If a monolith-on-the-moon project were to be crowdfunded, how would it work? What would need to be considered? What would be the most efficient and effective way to get a monolith on the moon?

Could mankind put a monolith on the moon through micropayments?

Update: A commenter reminds me that parachutes won’t work on the moon because there’s no atmosphere, and I confess that I feel stupid for that oversight. But other than that, this plan should totally work.

Related: Idea: A skyscraper in Tokyo shaped like Godzilla

April 9, 2010

Shower Poll

Sometimes I get blog post ideas in the shower. You won’t be surprised to learn that this is one of them.

I noticed that I always get in the shower on the end opposite the shower head. My thinking is that if the water is the wrong temperature, it’s only going to hit my feet. But I’ve heard of people who get in the shower on the head-side. I don’t understand this. What do they do to protect their faces and bodies against possibly-wrong-water-temperature? Duck below the water level?

So that got me wondering:

[People reading via RSS may need to visit the site to see the poll]

And then I started thinking about the movie Psycho. Marion Crane gets in the shower on the side opposite the shower head, but has the curtain pulled back so far that she’s practically entering in the middle. But then she turns on the shower after she steps in. That seems like a terrible idea. How do you know the water is the right temperature? I always turn on the water before stepping in.

So that got me wondering:

[People reading via RSS may need to visit the site to see the poll]

If the answer to any of these is “other,” or if you have any other shower insights you’d like to share (Do you do anything weird in the shower? No, I mean like washing dishes or something), please do so in the comments.

Related: Eyeglasses and the pushing up thereof
Related: Choose Wisely

October 19, 2009

Forensic Reconstruction of Famous Skulls of Fiction

I recently saw an amazing example of forensic reconstruction. A skull had been found, but police were unable to figure out the person’s identity. So a forensic artist examined the skull and created an illustration of what the person may have looked like while alive. When the person was finally identified, photos of the person looked strikingly similar to the artist’s rendition.

This got me thinking: What would a forensic reconstructionist make of some famous skulls of fiction? There are characters in film, television, and video games who we’ve only ever seen as talking skulls. Surely they couldn’t have grown to adult size without once being flesh and blood, right? So what did they look like?

To answer the question, I’ve enlisted the help of an amateur forensic reconstructionist (okay, it was my wife, who never did any forensic reconstruction before but can draw better than I can). Provided with three images of fictional skulls, here are the results:

1. Skeletor

2. Manuel Calavera

3. Jack Skellington

August 20, 2009

Migraine Typing

I type pretty well, and I sometimes get migraine headaches. They seem unrelated, but they weren’t a few weeks ago when I had a neurological event I’d never experienced before. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, and since I’m a fan of science writing about neurology, I thought I’d make a contribution to the genre. But I’m not a scientist, so it’s more of a personal anecdote than a science essay. This case study is more case than study.

migraine typing

I can go for years without a migraine, and then get one out of the blue. Sometimes I get a cluster of migraines spread out over a few weeks, and then nothing for several years. I have yet to figure out what triggers my migraines. None of the common triggers — caffeine, stress, cheese, etc — seem to affect me. When the headaches come, they last about 6 to 8 hours. From what I hear about other migraine sufferers, I’m lucky they only last that long.

My migraines are almost always preceded by about 30 minutes of visual phenomena that neurologists call “auras.” I’ve never liked the word because saying that I see auras is too loaded with supernatural suggestions. But I know it’s the accepted medical term, so I’ve taken to using it.

Auras are not atypical for migraine sufferers. In fact, migraines with auras are referred to as “classic” migraines. For me, an aura usually starts out as a tiny shimmering spot in the center of my vision. It looks a bit like the after-image you see when someone takes a flash photo of you. Instead of fading like the after-image from a flash would, the spot slowly grows. As it gets bigger, I can see that it has details: it is a colorful shimmering crescent wrapped around a white circle. Gradually, over the course of 20 minutes or so, it grows until the white center fills my entire field of vision. I’m temporarily blind. And then, over the next few minutes it slowly fades away until my vision is back to normal.

I try to consider these auras as early warning systems. If I take medicine as soon as they begin (in my case Excedrin Migraine can do the trick) the headache might be mild or even abort altogether. But if it doesn’t work, then awful pain and sensory hyper-sensitivity kick in for the next 6 to 8 hours.

Before the particular migraine episode that this story is about, I don’t think I’d had a migraine in about five years. Sometimes I would accidentally glance at a bright light and confuse the after-image for the beginning of a migraine, but happily those incidents all turned out to be false alarms. So I certainly wasn’t expecting a migraine on this particular morning when I was sitting in the living room typing a business e-mail on the laptop computer.

I’ve been touch typing for the past 20 years in a manner that would please Mavis Beacon, with my fingers resting on the home row and my eyes on the screen. I don’t think about what my fingers are doing. They move quickly across the keys on their own, tapping out words like it’s second nature as I merely think about what I want to write. When I mistype something, I can feel it in my fingers before I notice it on screen, and sometimes I instinctively backspace to correct it before I even realize I’ve made the mistake.

On the morning in question, I was a few words into a sentence several paragraphs into the email when I realized that nothing I intended to type in that sentence actually made it to the screen. Instead there was just a stream of gibberish. Sometimes this can happen when my fingers accidentally start out in the wrong position; I might type a few words before realizing that my fingers are positioned one key to the right. So I erased the sentence, repositioned my fingers, and started over.

Again, my fingers were typing nonsense. Could I have made the same mistake twice? No, I was definitely starting out in the correct position. I watched my fingers move as I typed. Nothing looked wrong. The sensation was just as familiar as any other time I typed. My fingers moved with the same confidence, as though they knew exactly where they were going to reach the letters they needed to hit. And yet: gibberish on the screen.

I concentrated on typing just one word correctly. Nope. Gibberish.

In the space of a few seconds, I wondered several things. It seemed to me that something neurological was happening. Was it a stroke? I began to see the beginning of a visual aura, and concluded with relief that a migraine was affecting my typing. But I’d never had any early warning other than the visual auras before. Why was I having this now? Is it possible that I would have experienced this if I had been typing during the onset of previous migraines, or was this migraine just manifesting itself differently?

If my fingers were just typing gibberish, how did they know what particular gibberish to type? For example, why did my left middle finger, which only types the letters e, d, and c, know that it was its turn to type the wrong letter instead of another finger’s turn? Were the correct signals still being sent, but to the wrong finger? In retrospect I wonder, if I had kept the gibberish instead of erasing it, would it turn out to be a simple substitution cipher for whatever I meant to type, or was it truly complete gibberish?

The famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, himself a migraineur, wrote a book called Migraine in which he describes a variety of interesting symptoms of migraine sufferers. It’s not unheard of for some people to experience language disorders during their auras, a condition known as aphasia.. They may be unable to speak even though they understand people clearly. Or they may have trouble understanding what people are saying, as though they are hearing a foreign language. I wonder if this extends to written language. Is it possible that I was actually typing correctly all along, but the words were simply unrecognizable to my brain?

I had planned on writing about this last week, but I didn’t get a chance. Life intervened in the form of another neurological event totally new to me and with which I’m now equally fascinated: amnesia. On Tuesday afternoon, I was lying on the couch in my living room, surfing the web with my iPhone. That’s the last memory I have before waking up in the bathtub, dry and clothed, with my glasses broken and my head bleeding, and no idea how I got there.

Don’t worry. I’m fine now. But that’s a story for another time.

Further reading:
An article by Oliver Sacks about migraine auras in the New York Times.
A slideshow of migraine art that accompanied the article.’s web page about migraine aphasia.
The Daily Headache, the blog of a migraine sufferer who has headaches much worse than I do, and links to other migraineurs who blog about their symptoms.

December 18, 2008

Idea: Noah’s Hand Everyday

Noah Kalina has famously taken a photo of himself every day for the last 8 years. The YouTube video of his first six years in sequence shows him growing right before our eyes.

Of course, Noah isn’t the only person who has done this, although he is probably the most famous example. But others have undertaken similar projects. All of them are fascinating.

Time-lapse portraits of a face may be the most obvious and compelling subject matter, but I think science and curiosity might benefit from time lapse portraits of other body parts, too. What if Noah had been taking a second picture all this time, of, say, his left hand? It would be interesting to see how his hand ages along with his face. There probably wouldn’t be much change now, but as he ages it would get more dramatic.

Less subtle and more interesting would be a couple who starts this project with a newborn baby, photographing its hand every day. We might not have as emotional a connection to a hand as we do a face, but wouldn’t it be cool to see a real person’s hand grow and change over a lifetime?

(I’m both entertained and disturbed by the thought of a day when this kid discovers that not all parents photograph their kid’s hands every day; and then the day he rebels as a teenager and refuses to let his parents photograph his hand anymore; but not until after he has a conversation where he tells his friends, “Sorry I can’t hang out longer, but I’ve gotta get home so my parents can take today’s hand picture.”)

June 26, 2008

The Daily Show: As the World Turns

If you are in outer space above the North Pole and you look down at Earth, you see the planet spinning counter-clockwise. When a globe of Earth spins correctly, the continents move from West to East. But the globes on the Daily Show spin the wrong way. Take a look:

There are three globes in this sequence. The first one is being twisted apart, so the North and South hemispheres spin in opposite directions, as you’d expect from a planet that’s being twisted apart. So I’ll forgive that one. But that globe opens to reveal another, smaller version of Earth. This one is definitely spinning in the wrong direction. And then we travel through the equator of that one where we see another Earth. And this one spins the wrong way, too.

When they go to or come back from commercial, the Daily Show logo appears at the bottom of the screen with a globe behind it that sometimes spins correctly, and sometimes spins incorrectly. Why the different versions? I don’t know. But here it is spinning incorrectly:

I guess it could be creative license. Or it could be that we’re meant to be in orbit. But I think it might be another NBC News Digest debacle.

And don’t even get me started on the scientifically inaccurate axis tilt.

Update: Here’s everything in one handy YouTube video:

April 14, 2008

Video Store Clerk Game: A Crowd Wisdom Experiment

On-line movie recommendation systems (such as those at Amazon, Netflix, etc) are pretty good at guessing what movies you might like based on your movie history. Improvements to these systems are constantly being made, using ever more sophisticated algorithms. But how good are they compared to the wisdom of actual people? That’s what my friends Jay and Andy are trying to figure out. And they need your help.

Jay and Andy have created a game called Video Store Clerk in which you play a video store clerk. You are told how a real customer has rated previous movie rentals, and then you are shown another movie title that the person also rented. Can you guess how the customer rated that movie?

They are collecting all the user-generated data and comparing it to the real customers’ ratings. A computer has already played the game with millions of customers, and we know how well it did. The question is whether or not the wisdom of crowds can beat the computer. To gather enough data for an accurate comparison, they need a lot of people to play. So please, pass the link around. Digg it. Blog it. They tell me their server can handle the load.

The experiment’s findings will ultimately go toward building a better movie recommendation system. Hopefully you’ll find the game fun to play, too. And if you have any ideas about improving the game, you can leave a comment here or use the contact link on their site.

Link: Video Store Clerk

April 4, 2008

Eyeglasses and the pushing up thereof

I’ve noticed lately that there seem to be three four distinct ways that people push up their glasses, and yet not a single study has been done about this. “10 Things You Can Tell About Your Man By How He Pushes Up His Glasses” seems like a perfect headline for a women’s magazine in the supermarket checkout line, and yet nobody is doing this important research. So here’s an overview:

Method 1: Placing one hand on each side of the frame, use the fingertips or midfingers of both hands in concert to raise the glasses into a comfortable position.

Celebrity who uses Method 1: Actress Tina Fey

Method 2: Using the fingers of just one hand, grab the frame front securely on one side and push the glasses up into a comfortable position.

Celebrity who uses Method 2: Magician Penn Jillette

Method 3: Using just one finger, press upward on the bridge of the frame, raising the glasses into a comfortable position.

Celebrity who uses Method 3: Journalist Clark Kent

Method 4: [Added after being mentioned by Pavel in the comments] Spread the hands across the face, with a thumb on one end of the frame and a finger on the other. In one motion, push the glasses up into a comfortable position.

Celebrity who uses Method 4: Pavel in the comments below

I think method 2 is the inferior method, because it raises the glasses unevenly and could cause strain on the end pieces or hinges. Method 3, meanwhile, may be the simplest and most efficient method, but seems to be associated with nerd behavior for some reason. Do people deliberately use method 2 over method 3 just to look cooler? Method 4 is efficient, but I’m not a fan because it temporarily obstructs one’s vision. But perhaps there is a refined technique I haven’t considered. I have not yet formed an opinion about method 1. But surely there is a university out there looking for some useless research to do, right?

February 11, 2008

Idea: Scientist Valentines

Thursday is Valentine’s Day, a holiday where it’s customary to give a card to your loved one just to say “I Love You.” But even before the Catholic Church decided to honor one of its Saints with a holiday on February 14, this month was celebrated as a month of fertility festivals going all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. I’ve decided to honor an entirely different group of people with this collection of romantic cards you can e-mail to your loved ones on February 14th, or any other day of the year. It’s Scientist Valentines!

You can click on these to get larger versions:

Previously: You say you want an evolution…

August 14, 2007

Idea: Breed a “Mickey” Mouse

Mickey MouseWalt Disney should add a new division of scientists (biological imagineers) to its company with the goal of breeding “Mickey” mice — real mice, selectively bred for their big round ears and black facial coloring which makes them resemble a certain famous cartoon mouse. Then they can sell them as pets in pet stores.

If they start now, this could be the next big craze come Christmas.

August 1, 2007

Photos from the Galapagos Islands

By now you may have seen my 60 Second Videos from the Galapagos Islands. As promised, here is a sample of photos from the trip. The rectangular photos were shot by me, and the beautiful ethereal square photos were shot by Ellen. I think several of her photos, which she shot with a $23 Holga camera, are far more beautiful than mine, which I shot with equipment that cost a hell of a lot more. You can see more of both our photos in slide-show form here.

Marine Iguana
Marine Iguana

Trees on North Seymour Island

Sea Lions
Sea Lions

Flightless Cormorant
Flightless Cormorant

Isabela Island
A Darwin Bush grows through the lava on Isabela Island

Marine Iguanas
More Marine Iguanas. I love these guys.

Santa Cruz Island
Scalesia trees on Santa Cruz Island

Soccer Break
The crew from our boat plays soccer on Floreana Island

Blue Footed Boobies
Blue Footed Boobies

Bartolome Island
Bartolome Island

Nazca Booby
Nazca Booby

Waved Albatrosses
Waved Albatrosses

Tuff Cone
A tuff cone lava formation

Giant Tortoise
Giant Tortoise

Back to the Beluga
Back to our boat, the Beluga

You can see more of both our photos in slide-show form here.

July 24, 2007

60 Seconds in the Life of the Galapagos Islands

Parts 22-28 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

I just got back from the Galapagos Islands. It was amazing. We went snorkeling with sea lions and sea turtles, saw all sorts of animals that don’t exist anywhere else, and learned a lot while we were doing it. But instead of going on and on about how great it was, I’m going to condense the experience into two simple posts. This one has videos, and this post has photos. None of them do the experience justice.

60 Seconds in the Life of the Waved Albatross

The Waved Albatross breeds only on Espanola Island. They mate for life, so when they first hook up they go through an elaborate dance to get to know each other, so they will recognize each other when they return to the Island to mate again after they go foraging off the coast of Peru. This is what their courtship dance looks like:

60 Seconds in the Life of Sally Lightfoot Crabs

These aren’t endemic to the Galapagos, but they’re fairly abundant. It wasn’t unusual to see several dozen at a time along the rocky shores. I’ve always thought crabs looked pretty cool, like little alien robots. But I had no idea crabs could jump. Watch the background and you’ll see.

60 Seconds in the Life of Blue Footed Boobies

They have a silly name, and they look kind of silly on land. But in flight and on the hunt, Blue Footed Boobies look like another creature altogether — bomber planes. They fly around looking for schools of fish, and then dive straight into the water to grab what they can, as seen in this video. It was shot from a dinghy in choppy water, so I apologize for the shakiness:

60 Seconds in the Life of Marine Iguanas

The Galapagos Islands have the only iguanas in the world that forage in the sea. They hold their breath and dive down to eat algae for minutes at a time, and then hang out en masse on shore when they’re done. I think they were my favorite animals on the whole trip. Charles Darwin wrote about them, “The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2-3 ft) most disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. I call them ‘imps of darkness’.”

60 Seconds in the Life of Frigatebirds

Frigatebirds are the ones you may have seen photos of with the big red inflated pouches that look like balloons. They fly over water, but they never land on water. Instead, they steal from other birds like pirates in mid-air. In flight, they have incredible silhouettes, with their forked tails and pointed, angled wings. These birds were filmed flying over our boat, arriving as soon as they smelled food, presumably hoping for our scraps.

60 Seconds in the Life of Flightless Cormorants

The flightless cormorant is endemic to Galapagos, and it’s the only variety of cormorant that can’t fly. In cormorant families, both parents care for the child in the nest, but at some point the mother abandons the family to go mate with someone else. In this clip, a father cormorant watches over the baby cormorant while the mother is out getting food. Either that, or she’s out “getting food” nudge nudge wink wink.

60 Seconds in the Life of Giant Tortoises

Galapagos means “saddleback” and the islands were named for the giant tortoises that live there, some of which have shells that resemble saddles. When competing for territory, Giant Tortoises extend their necks upward, and whoever’s neck extends furthest wins. The following clip is cut short because my neck apparently doesn’t extend far enough.

Unfortunately, all this video is low-res and only goes so far in doing the islands justice. Check out the photos for more.

May 29, 2007

New Delta ad campaign an in-joke for nerds?

Delta Delta Delta
Changes in Delta*
Earlier this month, Delta launched a new ad campaign called “Change,” along with a new logo. Even before the launch, I’d found myself recently appreciating the logo for features I’d never noticed before. Somehow it had never dawned on me that, in addition to being an abstraction of an airplane’s wings, the actual shape of the logo is a triangle — the Greek letter Delta. Maybe it’s not as brilliant as the FedEx arrow but I like it.

The new red version of the logo has been promoted with a new ad campaign by SS & K. The campaign highlights all the changes recently made at Delta. The ads say things like “CHANGE IS: TXTING U UR FLT STATUS” or “CHANGE IS: NEVER BEING BORED ON BOARD.” I saw one ad that summed up the campaign’s theme as simply “CHANGE IS: DELTA.”

And that’s when I realized: Delta really is change. In physics, the Greek letter Delta is used to indicate change. For example, a simple formula for calculating a change in velocity might look like this (taken from this article about deltas in physics):


This would be read as, “The change in velocity is equal to the second velocity measurement minus the first velocity measurement.”

So is this an intentional double entendre meant to be appreciated by science and math nerds only? Or is it just serendipitous that Delta really does mean change, and that happens to be the word they based their campaign around? I’m not sure. But I appreciate it either way.

* I almost captioned this image “Can I help ya help ya help ya?” but thought it might be too obscure.

May 23, 2007

Idea: You Say You Want An Evolution (T-Shirt)

Today I had an idea for a t-shirt. Here’s the artwork I came up with:

Evolution Road

I decided to make it available with or without the caption, in designs suitable for dark t-shirts or light t-shirts. I like it both ways:

Evolution Road

It’s Charles Darwin meets Liverpool and it’s available now in dozens of styles and colors for men and women in the Ironic Sans store!

April 1, 2007

New species of falcon named after Millennium Falcon

Millennium Falcon Press ReleaseAs a Star Wars fan, I was excited to read this e-mail from my friend Hugh who’s doing an apprenticeship studying birds in Madagascar. The lab he’s working at recently discovered a new species of falcon, and they’ve decided to name it the “Millennium Falcon.” From his e-mail:

The scientific name is falco milleannus which means Millenium Falcon. How cool is that! The “official” explanation has nothing to do with Star Wars, but we’re all getting a good laugh out of it here because of the double meaning. My boss came up with the name. Check out the press release, they even quoted me at the end!


You can read the whole press release here. Very cool.

March 29, 2007

Idea: Develop an F-Bomb

The term “F-Bomb” is used often these days to describe what we used to simply call The F Word (mp3). Specifically, it describes the F Word when it’s used unexpectedly. For example, if a caller on a radio show uses the F Word, the host might chastise him for “dropping the F-Bomb.”

F BombWith that in mind, I think that if I were an evil dictator in a country developing a nuclear weapon, I would name my new weapon “The F-Bomb.” Then I’d get a little giggle every time it was reported in the news that my country is threatening to drop the F-Bomb. As in, “Ironicsansistan tested a long-range missile today, heightening fears that it will follow through on its threats to drop the F-Bomb on South Ironicsansistan.”

January 4, 2007

Celebrity Patents

Harry Houdini patentLast month, Google introduced its new Patent Search feature (in beta), allowing users to dig through 7 million US patents from 1790 to mid-1996. On-line patent searching has already been possible through the US Patent and Trademark Office website, but Google makes it fast and easy using their already familiar interface.

So, inspired by Google’s new easy-to-use patent search, I decided to dig up some of the celebrity patents that have been issued over the years. The following 18 20 patents are all by celebrities not usually known for being inventors. You can follow the links to the actual patents to learn more about each one.

1. Eddie Van Halen, Musician.
Patent #4,656,917 — Musical instrument support

Eddie Van Halen patent

2. Zeppo Marx, Actor/Comedian.
Patent #3,473,526 — Cardiac pulse rate monitor

Zeppo Marx patent

3. Harry Connick, Jr., Musician/Actor.
Patent #6,348,648 — System and method for coordinating music display among players in an orchestra

Harry Connick Jr patent

4. Penn Jillette, Magician.
Patent #5,920,923 — Hydro-therapeutic stimulator (for, um, sexual stimulation)

Penn Jillette patent

5. Michael Jackson, Singer.
Patent #5,255,452 — Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion

Michael Jackson patent

6. Abraham Lincoln, President.
Patent #6,469 — [Method of] Buoying vessels over shoals

Abraham Lincoln patent

7. Julie Newmar, Actress (“Batman” TV Show).
Patent #3,914,799 — Pantyhose with shaping band for cheeky derriere relief

Julie Newmar patent

8. Marlon Brando, Actor.
Patent #6,812,392 — Drumhead tensioning device and method

Marlon Brando patent

9. Lawrence Welk, Musician/Bandleader.
Patent #D170,898 — Welk ash tray (design)

Lawrence Welk patent

10. Jamie Lee Curtis, Actress.
Patent #4,753,647 — Infant garment

Jamie Lee Curtis patent

11. Gary Burghoff, Actor (Radar on “M*A*S*H” TV Show).
Patent #5,235,774 — Enhanced fish attractor device

Gary Burghoff patent

12. Mark Twain, Author.
Patent #140,245 — Improvement in scrap-books

Mark Twain patent

13. Hedy Lamarr, Actress.
Patent #2,292,387 — Secret communication system

Hedy Lamar patent

14. Walt Disney, Animation Innovator.
Patent #2,201,689 — Art of animation (method of filming animation cells with a shadow on the background)

Walt Disney patent

15. Harry Houdini, Magician.
Patent #1,370,316 — Diver’s suit

Harry Houdini patent

16. Danny Kaye, Actor/Singer/Entertainer.
Patent #D166,807 — Blowout toy or the like (design)

Danny Kaye patent

17. George Lucas, Director.
Patent #D265,754 — Toy figure (design)

George Lucas patent

18. Charles Fleischer, Actor (voice of Roger Rabbit).
Patent #4,219,959 — Toy egg

Charles Fleischer patent

UPDATE: Here are two more celebrity patents, courtesy of comments on this blog and others:

19. Prince, Musician/Singer.
Patent #D349,127 — Portable electronic keyboard musical instrument (design)

Prince patent

20. Paul Winchell, Ventriloquist.
Patent #3,097,366 — Artificial Heart

Prince patent

September 27, 2006


What planet is this?

Water Earth

It’s Earth, of course, viewed from around 9900 miles above a small island called Tetiaora, one of the few bits of land on this half of the planet. It’s weird that there’s a view of earth that’s almost entirely water. I’d love to see an actual photo of this view from space.

August 17, 2006

Norbert Wiener slept here

I’m spending this week in New Hampshire, getting some much needed R&R. The house I’m staying in is fairly remote but it’s quite nice. And it was once owned by Norbert Wiener, the brilliant mathematician who coined the term “cybernetics.”

Not much remains from when Wiener lived here, but the bookshelves are filled with his old books. So I’ve gone through some of the shelves and picked out a few of the more interesting titles. Here’s a selection of what Mr. Wiener read:

Lots of dictionaries: Appleton’s New Spanish Dictionary; Cassell’s German Dictionary; Cassell’s French Dictionary; Dutch (A “Teach Yourself Book”); Nuevo Diccionario Enciclopedico Ilustrado de la Lengua Catellana; Graglia’s Italian-English and English-Italian Dictionary;

Various songbooks including: A booklet called “Patriotic Songs of America” with lyrics and music to The Star Spangled Banner, Hail! Columbia, Yankee Doodle, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Dixie Land, America the Beautiful, Tenting on the Old Camp Ground, etc.; “A Book of Songs - Words and Melodies Only - For Unison & Part Singing For Grades IV, V and VI (Student’s Edition)”; “The Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics”; and “An Elizabethan Songbook - Lute Songs: Madrigals & Rounds; Sing!”

A German Historical Atlas; The Bartholomew World Pocket Atlas

Lots of math books, obviously. They mainly have titles that suggest they would be far over my head, including: “Mathematical Tables from Handbook of Chemistry & Physics”; “Four Place Tables - Unabridged Edition”; “Plane and Spherical Trigonometry” by Ashton and Marsh; “Wentworth’s Plane and Solid Geometry”; “A Survey of Modern Algebra”; “Geometry in Three Dimensions”

“An Essay on Man” by Ernst Cassirer

“The Science of Health”

“Basic Course in Botany”

“An Outline of General Zoology”

“Comparative Anatomy of Vertebrates”

“Beyond Hypnosis” by Hugh Lacy in 1952, including a chapter called “Dianetics” which criticizes L. Ron Hubbard but only with regards to his thoughts on hypnosis.

“Emily Post’s Etiquette - The Blue Book of Social Usage”

“The Standard Book of British and American Verse”

“Hotel Berlin ‘43” by Vicki Baum

“The Mutineers” by Charles Boardman Hawes with a lovely illustrated cover

“Scaramouche” by Rafael Sabatini

“The City of Open Air and Other Verse” by Charles Poole Cleaves

“This I Believe: The personal philosophies of one hundred thoughtful men and women in all walks of life — twenty of whom are immortals in the history of ideas, eighty of whom are our contemporaries of today — written for Edward R. Murrow.” This is the second volume, and is inscribed “To Professor Norbert Wiener” and I can’t read the signature. It looks like “Ward Wheeler” or something like that. I figured out what the inscription says. It reads, “With great thanks for your outstanding contribution” and is signed “Ward Wheelock.” Mr. Wheelock was a friend of Edward R. Murrow’s and was the one to come up with the idea for a “This I Believe” series. Norbert Weiner is one of the people who contributed an essay for this book.

“Posthistoric Man - An Inquiry” by Roderick Seidenberg

“Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo. In five volumes.

“Departmental Ditties” by Rudyard Kipling.

“Praha Guidebook”

“The Black Arrow” by Robert Louis Stevenson

“The Hunting of the Snark and Other Poems”

“New Arabian Nights” by R.L. Stevenson

The College Entrance Examination Board’s “Comprehensive Examination Questions” for June and September 1918, including sections on Chemistry, English, French, German, Greek, History, Latin, Mathematics, Physics, and Spanish.

A beautiful 1921 leather-bound copy of “The Astronomer-Poet of Persia” that’s sadly falling apart.

“History of European Morals” Third Edition, Revised, in two volumes.

“The France of Today” from 1916

“The Pleasures of an Absentee Landlord and Other Essays”

“The Mechanics of Writing” which has the very long subtitle “A compendium of rules regarding manuscript-arrangement, spelling, the compounding of words, abbreviations, the representation of numbers, syllabication, the use of capitals, the use of italics, punctuation, and paragraphing.”

And many, many more. How many have you read?

August 7, 2006

Idea: The Ant Desk

The Ant Desk

What do you get for the eccentric executive who has everything? How about the Ant Desk? It’s part desk, and part Ant Farm. How creepy is it to work at your desk while hundreds of ants scurry all around you? Is it distracting? Fascinating? Did some of them get out? Do you think you feel them crawling on your legs? It’s the ultimate desk for nature lovers, bug lovers, and, well, other people who want a weird desk.

The Ant DeskHow does it work? It begins with a thick layer of glass or clear plastic. This protects you from the ants, and protects the ants from you. Below the glass is an open space with a thick layer of dirt, allowing the ants to crawl in, out, and around their tunnels, caves, and hills. This all rests on top of a sturdy base layer, which doubles as the bottom of the desktop. Small holes around the sides of the desk provide air, while being too small for the ants to escape.

Hundreds of ants will live happily for months, with just a little food and water periodically inserted through the feeding portals. For cleaning, the base layer can be built to slide out on casters like a large drawer, or the glass top may be hinged to open. I haven’t worked that out yet.

And when you get home, you can cuddle up with your loved one in front of the TV and rest your wine glasses on your Ant Coffee Table. The perfect oddity for any living room.

July 31, 2006

Idea: Wear your DNA on your sleeve

DNA ShirtThe other day I thought I saw someone wearing a shirt with a DNA pattern. When I got closer, I realized that the shirt just had little drawings of trees all over it. But then I got to thinking, why not? These days it’s not too expensive to get your “DNA fingerprint” made, right? Several companies, like DNA Artistry and DNA11 will already create custom artwork from your DNA, so why not take the technology in a different direction and make shirts? Having a pattern created from your DNA should be a simple step.

Okay, it might end up being an expensive shirt, but look at that pattern. It’s futuristic, yet retro. It’s 1970s meets 2070. It’s pret-a-porté meets your DNA. And they make perfect gifts. Nothing says “I love you” better than your DNA on your loved one’s clothes, right?

Previously: Pre-pixelated clothes for Reality TV

June 12, 2006

You got your picture in my logo

I’ve been noticing logos lately that have replaced letters with pictures. I think it’s fascinating how the brain just fills in the blanks, whether or not the pictures actually resemble the letters they replace. Various studies have shown that we don’t look at the letters which make up words as much as we look at the shapes of the words as a whole. In fact, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The brain just takes care of the rest.

Here are examples where the letter isn’t completely gone, but a picture is formed by stylizing and embellishing a letter:

PictureLogo PictureLogo


And here are examples where the letter is totally gone, completely replaced by a picture that resembles the missing letter:

Sopranos Signs
Tarzan Empire
SeaWorld SouperBowl

It probably helps that the picture in the word is often a representation of the word itself. Something like the Stroop Effect may be going on here (or maybe the opposite of the Stroop Effect, whatever that would be called. The Poorts Effect?). Take this example, for instance:


The strawberry doesn’t look anything like the letter “a” but we know what letter is supposed to go there because we recognize the rest of the word, and after all, it is a picture of a strawberry.

This is one of my favorites:


We know it’s supposed to say “CIGARS” even though the picture neither looks like the letter “C” nor depicts a cigar! Perhaps the association with some tobacco product is enough.

And then there are the movie logos that replace letters with numbers:

PictureLogo PictureLogo

And of course movie logos that replace numbers with pictures:

PictureLogo PictureLogo

But Google takes the cake. They frequently swap out their traditional logo with one paying to tribute to a holiday or celebrity birthday. Their substitute logos often replace letters with picture, relying on our familiarity with the Google name and logo. They use color to remind us of the original logo, too.


And the granddaddy of all is this Google logo celebrating the Persian New Year. Only one letter remains as a reminder of the original logo:


May 24, 2006

Idea: The Correlation Project

I want to see a website that lets me keep track of something simple for a set period of time, and then compares it to a database to search for correlations. For example, over the course of a week or month or year, or even on an ongoing basis, it could ask, “What did you have for breakfast today?” or “What color shirt did you wear today?” or “How many calls did you get on your cell phone today?” Maybe a daily e-mail would remind you to log in with the answers.

Then it would compare the answers to other things that are already tracked such as the stock market, phases of the moon, sports scores, etc., and spit out some correlations.

It could tell you “On 93% of the days on which you ate eggs for breakfast, the stock market went up.” Or, “When the moon is waxing, you are 88% more likely to wear a green shirt than when it is waning.” Or, “On days when you get more than 7 phone calls, the Yankees win their games.”

Or, if you opt in to share your information with others, it could tell you, “For the past year, you’ve been on the same Green Shirt Schedule as Joe Shmoe of Hackensack, NJ, who has worn a green shirt every day that you did.”

There would need to be a notice reminding people that there is no causation implied by these findings, just correlations. People have a tendency to apply too much meaning to these sorts of things, and think they are evidence of paranormal phenomenon or conspiracy. But I think it’s interesting just to look at these things for the sake of seeing how easy it is to find coincidental correlations retrospectively. If such a project existed, maybe it could show people just how common coincidence really is with an experiment they can participate in themselves.

May 18, 2006

When Isamu Met Bucky

Noguchi and FullerI had the pleasure this evening of attending the opening of a new exhibit at the Noguchi Museum in Queens highlighting the work of sculptor Isamu Noguchi and his good friend Buckminster Fuller.

Buckminster Fuller, many people will remember, was the man most famous for inventing the geodesic dome, an incredibly strong structure made up of a network of struts. Fuller’s invention was conceived as an extremely lightweight but stable building that could be erected simply and inexpensively. While the dome was a big success, he designed it after a long string of other inventions which Fuller hoped would create a better life for humanity, but which never caught on.

A chrome sculpture of Fuller by Noguchi overlooks several exhibits
Several of those inventions are showcased in the new exhibit. One highlight is a scale model of Fuller’s Dymaxian House, an easy-to-ship and easy-to-assemble home that hangs from wires around a central column (“Dymaxian” is Fuller’s made up contraction of the words Dynamic, Maximum, and Tension). Fuller imagined this as the wave of the future, an ultra-efficient, ultra-affordable, mass-producible home. But only one Dymaxian House was ever built. It was lived in for 30 years before being relocated to the Henry Ford Museum in 2001.

A visitor examines a model of the Dymaxian Car
Fuller’s Utopian vision extended beyond homes. In 1933, he built a prototype Dymaxian Car, a highly efficient vehicle that seated 11, reached 120 miles per hour, got 30 miles per gallon (unheard of at the time) and did it all on only 3 wheels. It was 20 feet long, but barely needed more space than that to do a full 180 degree turn. Sadly, an accident at the 1933 World’s Fair prompted investors to abandon the project, and the car never passed the prototype stage. It’s a shame it never went any further in development. It’s hard not to imagine how automobiles would be different today. For the current exhibit, the Noguchi museum has brought together models, pictures, and video footage of the car in action.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The exhibit explores many more of Fuller’s projects, but these were my favorites.

The sculpture garden at the Noguchi Museum
The exhibit, called “Best of Friends: R. Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi,” reflects the friendship and values of two men, each dedicated to improving the lot of the common man, one working through science and the other through art.

The lives of both men are presented nicely through an exhibit designed by graphic designer Tomoko Miho, who the AIGA called “the design world’s best kept secret.” Along one wall, an extensive timeline follows the parallels of both men’s lives, and is included in full as a gatefold in the exhibition brochure, making it a great souvenir.

The exhibit opens this Friday, and continues through October 15.

March 29, 2006

Idea: The Ishihara Triptych

The Ishihara Triptych

Remember when you were in third grade and the school nurse gave you that test to see if you’re color blind? The one where she shows you a circle made up of smaller colored circles and asks you what number you see? That test is the Ishihara Test of Color Vision.

I’m fascinated by perception, especially by the uncommon traits that make some people’s perception different than the rest of us — color blindness, tetrachromatism, synesthesia, monocular vision, etc. I also enjoy original art. I decided to combine the two interests by making a triptych out of three Ishihara color vision test plates.

At greater expense than I anticipated, I obtained a set of Ishihara color vision test plates. I picked out three plates that I felt looked good together, and blew them up to a size suitable for framing. The entire finished triptych, seen above, hangs above my bed. I think it makes a compelling piece of art.

It’s titled “57-74-8, or 35-21-3”

Want to make your own? Click each thumbnail below to download a high-res image you can download, print out, and frame.


March 14, 2006

Happy Pi Day

πToday, March 14, is Pi Day. Pi is often approximated as 3.14, so apparently 3/14 is a day to celebrate that famous irrational number. It also happens to be Albert Einstein’s birthday. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do in celebration, but here is Pi to one million digits.

The Wikipedia entry on Pi Day points out:

The “ultimate” pi moment occurred on March 14, 1592, at 6:53 AM and 58 seconds. When written in American-style date format, this is 3/14/1592 6:53.58, which corresponds to the value of pi to twelve digits: 3.14159265358. However, considering this was well before any kind of standardized world time had been established, and the general public had no concept of π, the occurrence likely went unnoticed.