EssentialstheDiagonal is a personal blog by Mike Gerra, skeptic, technologist, psychologist, artist, humanist, collector of grand, eclectic ideas.theDiagonal blog connects the dots across multiple disciplines for inquisitive, objective and critical thinkers, exploring the vertices of big science, disruptive innovation, global sustainability, illuminating literature and leftfield art. It is on this diagonal that creativity thrives, big ideas take flight and reason triumphs.
Category Archives: Technica
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Sunday, May 19, 2013
We humans are capable of the most sublime creations, from soaring literary inventions to intensely moving music and gorgeous works of visual art. This stands in stark and paradoxical contrast to our range of inventions that enable efficient mass destruction, torture and death. The latest in this sad catalog of human tools of terror is the “pain ray”, otherwise known by its military euphemism as an Active Denial weapon. The good news is that it only delivers intense pain, rather than death. How inventive we humans really are — we should be so proud.
From the New Scientist:
THE pain, when it comes, is unbearable. At first it’s comparable to a hairdryer blast on the skin. But within a couple of seconds, most of the body surface feels roasted to an excruciating degree. Nobody has ever resisted it: the deep-rooted instinct to writhe and escape is too strong....read more
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Good customer service once meant that a store or service employee would know you by name. This person would know your previous purchasing habits and your preferences; this person would know the names of your kids and your dog. Great customer service once meant that an employee could use this knowledge to anticipate your needs or personalize a specific deal. Well, this type of service still exists — in some places — but many businesses have outsourced it to offshore call center personnel or to machines, or both. Service may seem personal, but it’s not — service is customized to suit your profile, but it’s not personal in the same sense that once held true....read more
Friday, May 17, 2013
Ubiquitous connectivity for, and between, individuals and businesses is widely held to be beneficial for all concerned. We can connect rapidly and reliably with family, friends and colleagues from almost anywhere to anywhere via a wide array of internet enabled devices. Yet, as these devices become more powerful and interconnected, and enabled with location-based awareness, such as GPS (Global Positioning System) services, we are likely to face an increasing acute dilemma — connectedness or privacy?
From the Guardian:
The internet has turned into a massive surveillance tool. We’re constantly monitored on the internet by hundreds of companies — both familiar and unfamiliar. Everything we do there is recorded, collected, and collated – sometimes by corporations wanting to sell us stuff and sometimes by governments wanting to keep an eye on us....read more
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Will humanity ever transcend gravity to become a space-faring race? A simple napkin-based calculation will give you the answer.
From Scientific American:
Optimistic visions of a human future in space seem to have given way to a confusing mix of possibilities, maybes, ifs, and buts. It’s not just the fault of governments and space agencies, basic physics is in part the culprit. Hoisting mass away from Earth is tremendously difficult, and thus far in fifty years we’ve barely managed a total the equivalent of a large oil-tanker. But there’s hope.
Back in the 1970?s the physicist Gerard O’Neill and his students investigated concepts of vast orbital structures capable of sustaining entire human populations. It was the tail end of the Apollo era, and despite the looming specter of budget restrictions and terrestrial pessimism there was still a sense of what might be, what could be, and what was truly within reach....read more
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
By all accounts serial entrepreneur, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil is Google’s most famous employee, eclipsing even co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin. As an inventor he can lay claim to some impressive firsts, such as the flatbed scanner, optical character recognition and the music synthesizer. As a futurist, for which he is now more recognized in the public consciousness, he ponders longevity, immortality and the human brain.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Ray Kurzweil must encounter his share of interviewers whose first question is: What do you hope your obituary will say?
This is a trick question. Mr. Kurzweil famously hopes an obituary won’t be necessary. And in the event of his unexpected demise, he is widely reported to have signed a deal to have himself frozen so his intelligence can be revived when technology is equipped for the job....read more
Monday, April 15, 2013
Researchers at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, have discovered an alternative and possibly more efficient way to make hydrogen at industrial scales. Typically, hydrogen is produced from reacting high temperature steam with methane or natural gas. A small volume of hydrogen, less than five percent annually, is also made through the process of electrolysis — passing an electric current through water.
This new method of production appears to be less costly, less dangerous and also more environmentally sound.
From the Independent:
Scientists have harnessed the principles of photosynthesis to develop a new way of producing hydrogen – in a breakthrough that offers a possible solution to global energy problems.
The researchers claim the development could help unlock the potential of hydrogen as a clean, cheap and reliable power source.
Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen can be burned to produce energy without producing emissions. It is also the most abundant element on the planet....read more
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Leave it to Google to help you auto-euthanize and die digitally. The presence of our online selves after death was of limited concern until recently. However, with the explosion of online media and social networks our digital tracks remain preserved and scattered across drives and backups in distributed, anonymous data centers. Physical death does not change this.
[A case in point: your friendly editor at theDiagonal was recently asked to befriend a colleague via LinkedIn. All well and good, except that the colleague had passed-away two years earlier.]
So, armed with Google’s new Inactive Account Manager, death — at least online — may be just a couple of clicks away. By corollary it would be a small leap indeed to imagine an enterprising company charging an annual fee to a dearly-departed member to maintain a digital afterlife ad infinitum.
From the Independent:...read more
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Your movements are valuable — but not in the way you may think. Mobile technology companies are moving rapidly to exploit the vast amount of data collected from the billions of mobile devices. This data is extremely valuable to an array of organizations, including urban planners, retailers, and travel and transportation marketers. And, of course, this raises significant privacy concerns. Many believe that when the data is used collectively it preserves user anonymity. However, if correlated with other data sources it could be used to discover a range of unintended and previously private information, relating both to individuals and to groups.
From MIT Technology Review:
Wireless operators have access to an unprecedented volume of information about users’ real-world activities, but for years these massive data troves were put to little use other than for internal planning and marketing....read more
Monday, April 8, 2013
Many herald the forward motion of technological innovation as progress. In many cases the momentum does genuinely seem to carry us towards a better place; it broadly alleviates pain and suffering; it generally delivers more and better nutrition to our bodies and our minds. Yet for all the positive steps, this progress is often accompanied by retrograde leaps — often paradoxical ones. Particularly disturbing is the relative ease to which technology allows us — the responsible adults – to sexualise and exploit children. Now, this is certainly not a new phenomenon, but our technical prowess certainly makes this problem more pervasive. A case in point, the Instagram beauty pageant. Move over Honey Boo-Boo.
From the Washington Post:...read more
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Martin Cooper. You may not know that name, but you and a fair proportion of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants have surely held or dropped or prodded or cursed his offspring.
You see, forty years ago Martin Cooper used his baby to make the first public mobile phone call. Martin Cooper invented the cell phone.
From the Guardian:
It is 40 years this week since the first public mobile phone call. On 3 April, 1973, Martin Cooper, a pioneering inventor working for Motorola in New York, called a rival engineer from the pavement of Sixth Avenue to brag and was met with a stunned, defeated silence. The race to make the first portable phone had been won. The Pandora’s box containing txt-speak, pocket-dials and pig-hating suicidal birds was open....read more
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Robert Hof argues that the time is ripe for Steve Jobs’ corporate legacy to reinvent the TV. Apple transformed the personal computer industry, the mobile phone market and the music business. Clearly the company has all the components in place to assemble another innovation.
From Technology Review:
Steve Jobs couldn’t hide his frustration. Asked at a technology conference in 2010 whether Apple might finally turn its attention to television, he launched into an exasperated critique of TV. Cable and satellite TV companies make cheap, primitive set-top boxes that “squash any opportunity for innovation,” he fumed. Viewers are stuck with “a table full of remotes, a cluster full of boxes, a bunch of different [interfaces].” It was the kind of technological mess that cried out for Apple to clean it up with an elegant product. But Jobs professed to have no idea how his company could transform the TV....read more
Saturday, March 30, 2013
For technologists the barriers to developing a new product have never been so low. Tools to develop, integrate and distribute software apps are to all intents negligible. Of course, most would recognize that development is often the easy part. The real difficulty lies in building an effective and sustainable marketing and communication strategy and getting the product adopted.
The recent headlines of 17 year old British app developer Nick D’Aloisio selling his Summly app to Yahoo! for the tidy sum of $30 million, has lots of young and seasoned developers scratching their heads. After all, if a school kid can do it, why not anybody? Why not me?
Paul Graham may have some of the answers. He sold his first company to Yahoo in 1998. He now runs YCombinator a successful startup incubator. We excerpt his recent, observant and insightful essay below.
From Paul Graham:...read more
Saturday, March 23, 2013
At first glance Google’s aim to make all known information accessible and searchable seems to be a fundamentally worthy goal, and in keeping with its “Do No Evil” mantra. Surely, giving all people access to the combined knowledge of the human race can do nothing but good, intellectually, politically and culturally.
However, what if that information includes you? After all, you are information: from the sequence of bases in your DNA, to the food you eat and the products you purchase, to your location and your planned vacations, your circle of friends and colleagues at work, to what you say and write and hear and see. You are a collection of datapoints, and if you don’t market and monetize them, someone else will....read more
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Four minutes of hilarity courtesy of cracked.com – a look at our world if some name-brand websites were people.
Video courtesy of cracked.com.
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Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Forget wearable electronics, like Google Glass. That’s so, well, 2012. Welcome to the new world of epidermal electronics — electronic tattoos that contain circuits and sensors printed directly on to the body.
From MIT Technology Review:
Taking advantage of recent advances in flexible electronics, researchers have devised a way to “print” devices directly onto the skin so people can wear them for an extended period while performing normal daily activities. Such systems could be used to track health and monitor healing near the skin’s surface, as in the case of surgical wounds.
Monday, March 18, 2013
Rattling off esoteric facts to friends and colleagues at a party or in the office is often seen as a simple way to impress. You may have tried this at some point — to impress a prospective boy or girl friend or a group of peers or even your boss. Not surprisingly, your facts will impress if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. However, your audience will be even more agog at your uncanny, intellectual prowess if the facts and figures relate to some wildly obtuse domain — quotes from authors, local bird species, gold prices through the years, land-speed records through the ages, how electrolysis works, etymology of polysyllabic words, and so it goes....read more
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
You might expect to find police drones in the pages of a science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick or Iain M. Banks. But by 2015, citizens of the United States may well see these unmanned flying machines patrolling the skies over the homeland. The U.S. government recently pledged to loosen Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrictions that would allow local law enforcement agencies to use drones in just a few short years. So, soon the least of your worries will be traffic signal cameras and the local police officer armed with a radar gun. Our home-grown drones are likely to be deployed first for surveillance. But, undoubtedly armaments will follow. Hellfire missiles over Helena, Montana anyone?
From National Geographic:
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Edward Tufte built the first little blue box in 1962. The blue box contained home-made circuitry and a tone generator that could place free calls over the phone network to anywhere in the world.
This electronic revelation spawned groups of “phone phreaks” (hackers) who would build their own blue boxes to fight MaBell (AT&T), illegally of course. The phreaks assumed suitably disguised names, such as Captain Crunch and Cheshire Cat, to hide from the long-arm of the FBI.
This later caught the attention of a pair of new recruits to the subversive cause, Berkeley Blue and Oaf Tobar, who would go on to found Apple under their more common pseudonyms, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Put it down to curiosity, an anti-authoritarian streak and a quest to ever-improve.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
Shakespeare meet thy DNA. The most famous literary figure in the English language had a recent rendezvous with that most famous and studied of molecules. Together chemists, cell biologists, geneticists and computer scientists are doing some amazing things — storing information using the base-pair sequences of amino-acids on the DNA molecule.
From ars technica:
It’s easy to get excited about the idea of encoding information in single molecules, which seems to be the ultimate end of the miniaturization that has been driving the electronics industry. But it’s also easy to forget that we’ve been beaten there—by a few billion years. The chemical information present in biomolecules was critical to the origin of life and probably dates back to whatever interesting chemical reactions preceded it....read more
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Big data keeps getting bigger and computers keep getting faster. Some theorists believe that the universe is a giant computer or a computer simulation; that principles of information science govern the cosmos. While this notion is one of the most recent radical ideas to explain our existence, there is no doubt that information is our future. Data surrounds us, we are becoming data-points and our cities are our information-rich databases.
From the Economist:
IN 1995 GEORGE GILDER, an American writer, declared that “cities are leftover baggage from the industrial era.” Electronic communications would become so easy and universal that people and businesses would have no need to be near one another. Humanity, Mr Gilder thought, was “headed for the death of cities”....read more
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Often the best creative ideas and the most elegant solutions are the simplest. GravityLight is an example of this type of innovation. Here’s the problem: replace damaging and expensive kerosene fuel lamps in Africa with a less harmful and cheaper alternative. And, the solution:
From ars technica:
A London design consultancy has developed a cheap, clean, and safer alternative to the kerosene lamp. Kerosene burning lamps are thought to be used by over a billion people in developing nations, often in remote rural parts where electricity is either prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable. Kerosene’s potential replacement, GravityLight, is powered by gravity without the need of a battery—it’s also seen by its creators as a superior alternative to solar-powered lamps....read more
Sunday, January 13, 2013
If you eat too quickly, then HAPIfork is the new eating device for you. If you have trouble seeing text on your palm-sized iPad, then Lenovo’s 27 inch tablet is for you. If you need musical motivation from One Direction to get your children to brush their teeth, then the Brush Buddies toothbrush is for you, and your kids. If you’re tired of technology, then stay away from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2013).
If you’d like to see other strange products looking for a buyer follow this jump.
Image: The HAPIfork monitors how fast its user is eating and alerts them if their speed is faster than a pre-determined rate by vibrating, which altogether sounds like an incredibly strange eating experience. Courtesy of CES / Telegraph.
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Saturday, December 22, 2012
Bored with Google’s homepage? Paranoid over Google’s omniscience? If so, take a break from the omnipresent search engine and visit some of Google’s lesser known relatives. Our two favorites below:
More Google parodies after the jump.
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Tuesday, December 11, 2012
One hopes that Google’s intention to “organize the world’s information” will remain benign for the foreseeable future. Yet, as more and more of our surroundings and moves are mapped and tracked online, and increasingly offline, it would be wise to remain ever vigilant. Many put up with the encroachment of advertisers and promoters into almost every facet of their daily lives as a necessary, modern evil. But where is the dividing line that separates an ignorable irritation from an intrusion of privacy and a grab for control? For the paranoid amongst us, it may only be a matter of time before our digital footprints come under the increasing scrutiny, and control, of organizations with grander designs.
From the Guardian:
Sunday, December 9, 2012
Golden Spike, a Boulder Colorado based company, has an interesting proposition for the world’s restless billionaires. It is offering a two-seat trip to the Moon, and back, for a tidy sum of $1.5 billion. And, the company is even throwing in a moon-walk. The first trip is planned for 2020.
From the Washington Post:
It had to happen: A start-up company is offering rides to the moon. Book your seat now — though it’s going to set you back $750 million (it’s unclear if that includes baggage fees).
At a news conference scheduled for Thursday afternoon in Washington, former NASA science administrator Alan Stern plans to announce the formation of Golden Spike, which, according to a news release, is “the first company planning to offer routine exploration expeditions to the surface of the Moon.”
“We can do this,” an excited Stern said Thursday morning during a brief phone interview....read more
Monday, December 3, 2012
Despite what seems to be an overwhelmingly digital shift in our lives, we still live in a world of steam. Steam plays a vital role in generating most of the world’s electricity, steam heats our buildings (especially if you live in New York City), steam sterilizes our medical supplies.
So, in a research discovery with far-reaching implication, scientists have succeeded in making steam at room temperature without actually boiling water. All courtesy of some ingenious nanoparticles.
From Technology Review:
Steam is a key ingredient in a wide range of industrial and commercial processes—including electricity generation, water purification, alcohol distillation, and medical equipment sterilization....read more
Saturday, November 24, 2012
As the internet that connects humans reaches a stable saturation point the industrial internet — the network that connects things — is increasing its growth and reach.
From the New York Times:
When Sharoda Paul finished a postdoctoral fellowship last year at the Palo Alto Research Center, she did what most of her peers do — considered a job at a big Silicon Valley company, in her case, Google. But instead, Ms. Paul, a 31-year-old expert in social computing, went to work for General Electric.
Ms. Paul is one of more than 250 engineers recruited in the last year and a half to G.E.’s new software center here, in the East Bay of San Francisco. The company plans to increase that work force of computer scientists and software developers to 400, and to invest $1 billion in the center by 2015. The buildup is part of G.E’s big bet on what it calls the “industrial Internet,” bringing digital intelligence to the physical world of industry as never before....read more
Friday, November 23, 2012
Starting up a new business was once a demanding and complex process, often undertaken in anonymity in the long shadows between the hours of a regular job. It still is over course. However nowadays “the startup” has become more of an event. The tech sector has raised this to a fine art by spawning an entire self-sustaining and self-promoting industry around startups.
You’ll find startup gurus, serial entrepreneurs and digital prophets — yes, AOL has a digital prophet on its payroll — strutting around on stage, twittering tips in the digital world, leading business plan bootcamps, pontificating on accelerator panels, hosting incubator love-ins in coffee shops or splashed across the covers of Entrepreneur or Inc or FastCompany magazines on an almost daily basis. Beware! The back of your cereal box may be next.
From the Telegraph:
Saturday, November 17, 2012
We all have owned or have used or have come far too close to a technology that we absolutely abhor and wish numerous curses upon its inventors. Said gizmo may be the unfathomable VCR, the forever lost TV remote, the tinny sounding Sony Walkman replete with unraveling cassette tape, the Blackberry, or even Facebook.
Ours over here at theDiagonal is the voice recognition system used by 99 percent of so-called customer service organizations. You know how it goes, something like this: “please say ‘one’ for new accounts”, “please say ‘two’ if you are an existing customer”, please say ‘three’ for returns”, “please say ‘Kyrgyzstan’ to speak with a customer service representative”.
Wired recently listed their least favorite, most hated technologies. No surprises here — winners of this dubious award include the Bluetooth headset, CDROM, and Apple TV remote.
Bluetooth Headsets...read more