Archive for the 'Cool Stuff' category

“Creativity is Just Connecting Things”

 | October 25, 2011 11:03 am

Note: This is a cross post from Apolitically Incorrect. If you would like to comment or remark, please consider stopping by.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences, or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry (technology) haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

--- Steve Jobs, Wired, February 1995

via Swiss Miss via Brain Pickings

Temples and Timelines

 | February 25, 2010 5:55 pm

Newsweek has a fascinating article about an archaeological site at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey that is well worth a look.

The site is the oldest religious temple ever discovered.  Preliminary carbon dating has determined that some of the artifacts date from 9,400 BC, which makes the place about 11,500 years old. (Which, just to be clear, is 7000 years before the Great Pyramid and 6500 years before Stonehenge.)  The article further explains:

The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals and even agriculture – the first embers of civilization.  … [It] may be the very first thing that human beings ever built.

And yet, the site is amazing.  The pillars show beautiful stone carvings and there are examples of sophisticated engineering techniques.  The stone circles are nearly 30 yards across with pillars that stand more than 17 feet tall.  Many of the stones (some weighing up to 50 tons) were first quarried and then transported half a kilometer to the site, where they were erected.  What staggers me, though, is that the stone circles were roofed.

This quote from Ian Hodder, head of archaeology at Stanford University, summarizes my response pretty well:

[Göbekli Tepe] is unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date.  The huge stones and fantastic, highly refined art [changes everything].  It overturns the whole apple cart.  All our theories were wrong.

This doesn’t happen often.  Scientists don’t admit mistakes and call for established theories to be overturned.  But when faced with such a revolutionary piece of evidence, you have little choice.

Göbekli  is literally an outlier in every way.  It shows engineering, organization, and artistic sophistication that seems to materialize out of nowhere.  The only other comparable examples won’t appear for five thousand years.

To really put this in perspective, consider the timeline below.  Arrayed across the bottom axis are the reigns of several ancient civilizations: the Chinese, Romans, Egyptians and Mesopotamians.  In addition to this information, I’ve also placed the approximate dates of the the ice age, stone age and examples of religious and cultural monuments (the oldest of which dates to about 3500 BC).

When compared with Göbekli, the great civilizations and monuments of the ancient world seem to to huddle in an upstart mob at the right of the chart.  Even the very oldest of the examples, a Mesopotamian palace, is separated from Göbekli by the same span of time that divides the ancient age from the modern day.

Such an amazing and sophisticated example at such an early date, literally, boggles my mind.  It's absolutely amazing.  And, paradoxically, the amazement and wonder helps to explain why Göbekli has remained essentially unknown.  A discovery of this magnitude demands enormous attention and dedication.  It takes almost as much as it gives, particularly from those that discovered it; and not every scientist is willing to give that kind of commitment.  Thus, I completely understand the response of the man who discovered the site.

[Unable to interpret what he saw], the [American] archeologist who stumbled on [on the site] in the 1960s simply walked away.

But, even so, the evidence at Göbekli has the potential to completely transform the history of civilization.  And I, for one, look forward to seeing what emerges.

Timeline-Gobekli-Tepe

Note: You can view a high resolution PDF of the timeline by clicking on the image, or here.

Hannibal, Napoleon, and Joseph Charles Minard

 | February 22, 2010 5:49 pm

Charles Minard - Railroad Routes

No study of the history of scientific communication can be complete without mention of Joseph Charles Minard, a 19th Century French civil engineer and cartographer.

At the end of his life, Minard created two very famous examples of statistical charts, called flow maps, that every scientist, engineer and student should be familair with.  The first showed Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps (218 BC, Second Punic War), and the second describes Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia (1812-1813).

Both examples are beautiful works of art and masterful examples of evidence.  But they are also more than that, they tell cohesive and interesting stories.  In this post, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the history of Hannibal and Napoleon, and highlight the ways which Minard’s charts help us to explain their eventual outcome.

(Note: High resolution, PDF versions of the two maps are available for download.  These versions have been translated from the original French.  To download, either click on the images, or here for the Hannibal invasion of Northern Italy, and here for the French Invasion of Russia.)

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Image Gallery: The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

 | February 5, 2010 12:31 am

DaVinci - HandsWhen I graduated from college and had to choose between a career in industry or academics, I found it to be an easy decision: I stayed in academics.  I like to have my head in the clouds and enjoy the intellectual lifestyle.  (I actually consider the label of “absentminded” to be a compliment.)

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a book has been the opportunity to research my subject.  My reading list has included books on analytic design, illustration, anatomy, typesetting, scientific communication, web technologies, LaTeX, the history of science, statistics and informational graphics. And as I worked my way through it, I took some extremely interesting side trips.  One of the most intriguing, however, was an extended tangent through the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Da Vinci died in the year 1519, nearly five hundred years ago.  Yet, the modern world remains fascinated by him.  His name adorns the side of best selling books and conspiracy fiction; and his drawings have become cultural icons.  As an example of his popularity:

In October of 2009, Martin Kemp, a professor of art and history at the University of Oxford, found a portrait of an Italian girl.  Up until Kemp took an interest, it was widely accepted that portrait had been painted sometime in the nineteenth century by an unknown artist.   After a great deal of investigation and the use of a multispectral camera, however, Kemp discovered something startling.  The painting had actually been done by Leonardo and nearly overnight, it went from a value of 19,000  British pounds to over 100 million.

I’m no different than the masses.  Leonardo fascinates me.  He had a very distinctive way of seeing the world and an engaging style.  Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to lose yourself in the details of his work.  Given my interest, a thorough study of Leonardo’s notebooks seemed only natural.

What I didn’t foresee, however, is that I would start to digitally collect his sketches; and in the past several months, I’ve put together a rather eclectic mix from across the internets.  Earlier today, I realized that the images might be of interest to others as well; thus, I’ve created a special online gallery for them.  It can be found under “Art and Photography” –> “The DaVinci Notebooks”  To get there more quickly, you could also just click here.

Enjoy!

About This Book Thing

 | January 28, 2010 5:22 pm

daVinci-SkullIn the past few weeks, I’ve had several observant readers ask about one of my “secret” projects.  They’ve wondered what I’m up to and why it’s detracting from other endeavors.  After answering another query this morning, I decided that it’s probably time to speak openly about it.  So, here’s my public confession: I’m writing a book.

It’s about scientific and professional writing and open source.  Moreover, it will be interesting, intriguing and revolutionary.  (Yes, I have an inflated sense of ego.)

Before really diving into the details, I’d like to give a bit of personal background.  This might help you understand why I’m passionate about the subject.

Background

Ten years ago, had someone told me that I would end up a scientist and engineer, I would have laughed at them.  At the time, I had just started at University and I was fully set on a career in either illustration, design or architecture.  I was much too “visual” and “right-brained” to surround myself by geeks, freaks and nerds.  It didn’t help that I spent a huge amount of time grooming myself to be an “artist”.

During high school, I had been cursed with moderate talent and highly indulgent instructors.  They praised my artwork.  They called it interesting and innovative.  They encouraged me to refine my technique and to major in visual arts.  So, I did.

But as time went on, I realized that I wasn’t very happy.  I realized that I had other interests.  I enjoyed art, I did well in it; but art classes weren’t my favorites.  That honor, as it turned out, was reserved for mathematics and science.

There was also another problem, I found that I lacked the discipline required to systematically create an individual style and build a portfolio.  I wanted create art for myself, not for other people; and that is a fatal flaw in an illustrator (the type of work that most interested me). Illustration, by definition, is work that has been requested for a particular use.  I was more interested in my own whims than those of potential clients.  Thus, not long after recognizing my problem, I decided to go a different direction and changed my major to engineering.

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Create a Unified Inbox in Gnome Evolution

 | October 27, 2009 3:43 am

I have a serious love-hate relationship with Linux.  I love the fact that it’s free and open source.  I love the fact that it can breathe new life into old hardware.  I love the fact that it’s easy to extend.  I love the fact that it has a vibrant and passionate user community.

What I do not love is that many open source programs are incomplete.  They can do most everything that you need, but never get around to adding the one or two features that prevent them from being finished, polished and exceptional.  I’ve ranted about this before, back when I was trying to find the perfect backup program.

Well … I’m at it again; except this time, I’m looking for the perfect email program.

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Install Time Drive On Ubuntu and Other Debian Linux Distributions

 | October 5, 2009 6:23 pm

Clock Icon: SettingsSince version 0.2.2 of Time Drive, installing Time Drive and keeping it up date has gotten a great deal easier.  Instead of requiring that you install from source, we now offer Debian based packages through the Time Drive Personal Package Archvie (PPA).  This article will briefly describe how to install Time Drive using that PPA.

Background

But before leaping headlong into the nitty gritty, let me provide a bit of background about packages and repositories.  Unlike Windows or Mac OS X, software on Linux is organized into a container called a package.  The package contains the files needed to run the program in addition to artwork and configuration information.  Any given program may require many other programs to be installed before it can run.  These other programs are referred to as dependencies.  Ubuntu and uses a tool for managing packages and dependencies called Apt.

The benefits of using Apt over manually installing things is that Apt figures out all of the dependencies automatically.  Further, it keeps everything up to date by periodically scanning the online repository (PPA) and downloading any updates.  In practice, Apt works much like the Windows Update service, only better, since it monitors every piece of software installed on your computer.

Installation Instructions

To install Time Drive using the PPA, we need to do the following:Ubuntu - Logo

  1. Add the Time-Drive-Devel and Duplicity PPA to your Ubuntu Software Sources.
  2. Configure Ubuntu so that it will trust both Time-Drive-Devel and the Duplicity packages.
  3. Install Duplicity and Time Drive

Step 1: Add the Package Repositories to the Ubuntu Software Sources

Open the Ubuntu Software Sources by going to the System –> Administration –> Software Sources.  Then, select the “Third-Party” software tab of the application.  “Software Sources” requires root access, therefore, you will be prompted to type in your administrator password.

Time Drive 0.2 - Software Sources

We need to add two package repositories to the list, one for Duplicity and the other for Time Drive.  Depending on the version of Ubuntu that you are using, copy and paste the following lines (one at a time) into the “Add Sources” dialog.  After each line, press the “Add Source” button.

Time Drive 0.2 - Software Sources Dialog

For Ubuntu Karmic Kaola (9.10):

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/duplicity-team/ppa/ubuntu karmic main # Duplicity – Ubuntu 9.10

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/time-drive-devel/stable/ubuntu karmic main # Time Drive – Ubuntu 9.10

For Ubuntu Jaunty Jackolope (9.04):

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/duplicity-team/ppa/ubuntu jaunty main # Duplicity – Ubuntu 9.04

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/time-drive-devel/stable/ubuntu jaunty main # Time-Drive – Ubuntu 9.04

For Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex (8.10):

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/duplicity-team/ppa/ubuntu intrepid main # Duplicity – Ubuntu 8.10

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/time-drive-devel/stable/ubuntu intrepid main # Time-Drive – Ubuntu 8.10

When finished, press the “Close” button.  Ubuntu should then notify you that the software information is out of date and needs to be updated.  Instead of clicking “Reload,” click the “Close” button.  We will refresh Apt from the command line in Step 3.

Time Drive 0.2 - Reload Sources

Step 2: Configure Apt to Trust Time Drive and Duplicity Packages

After adding the repository information, you will then need to add the repository key to your system’s list of trusted keys.  This is most easily done by running the update-launchpad shell script.  (To download, right click on the link and select “Save As”.)  When run, the script automatically downloads any needed signing keys and automatically add them to the “Trusted Sources” list.

To run the script, go to Accessories –> Terminal and navigate to where you saved the file, then type:

cd /path/to/folder
sudo bash update-launchpad.sh UbuntuVersion

Be sure to substitute the correct Ubuntu code name for UbuntuVersion in the second step – karmic for 9.10, jaunty for 9.04, or intrepid for 8.10 – otherwise, you will get an error.  I happen to use Ubuntu 9.04, therefore, for my setup, I would type the following:

sudo bash update-launchpad.sh jaunty

Step 3: Install Duplicity and Time Drive

Finally, we are ready to install Time Drive and Duplicity.  From the command line, refresh the package lists by typing:

sudo apt-get update

Then, to install time-drive and duplicity, type:

sudo apt-get install time-drive duplicity

Application Updates

As noted above, whenever a new version of Time Drive, Duplicity, or another dependency is added to the package repository, your system will automatically be updated.  However, should you upgrade your system to a newer version of  Ubuntu, you will need to return to this page to add the repository for that version.

__________________________________________________

Note: These instructions were modified from this tutorial on WineHQ.

Time Drive 0.1.5: Incremental Changes

 | August 14, 2009 11:19 am

Lifehacker induced change in web traffic.  Looks like move to exponential decay.It’s been an interesting couple of days.  I was rather honored to see that Lifehacker did a short highlight of Time Drive, which I thought was pretty cool.  It’s always been one of my goals to have something featured in Lifehacker or Gizmodo, and now I’m going to have to scratch that off the list of goals.  But that’s okay, I’ve got other things to fill the void.  Like … how exactly does one get invited to present at TED?

On another note … while I knew that I would see some kind of traffic bump due to the article in Lifehacker, I wasn’t necessarily prepared for the magnitude.  In mathematics, there is this thing called a step function.  It’s where you move from one value to another more or less instantaneously.  It looks like a step, hence the name.  Sure, It may not actually exist, since even very dramatic shifts still have a non vertical slope; but even so, the change in my traffic might as well be a step-function.  Between yesterday and today, I’ve had more visits to this site than I’ve had in much of the rest of the year combined.  I think that’s kind of cool, though it probably won’t last.

(This might be a good time to say that I am actually rather proud of my “lackluster” web traffic.  Though it might not necessarily be that impressive, it is, nevertheless, mine. I’ve worked hard for it, and I revel in the fact that some 40 to 50 people each day find the unorganized garbage of my mind intoxicating.  Some of them even come back!)

But as interesting as that might be, traffic stats is probably not why you're here.  Good thing, since I’ve got announcements.

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Backup for Linux, Done Right - Part 2: Time Drive 0.1

 | August 7, 2009 1:39 pm

Time-Drive-Icon[11]In part 1 of this article, I shared a few of the frustrations and reasons why I decided to write my own backup utility rather than submit to the tyranny of currently available solutions.  While some might find those ruminations interesting, the vast majority are probably far more interested in the end result.  There is a reason why “Get to the point” is one of the most important sentences in the English language.

Here’s the short version: After becoming tremendously frustrated by the state of backup on Linux, I decided to take matters into my own hands and create my own tool.

And though I only want a few things, I want that tool to do each very well.  First, I’m looking for a solution that can incrementally backup over the network and let me restore a file from an existing snapshot.  Second, those snapshots should be compressed, encrypted and secure.  Third, it should be easy to browse old backups for existing files and restoration should be a one-click affair.  Fourth, I want a backup system that can protect me from disaster, carelessness and pathological stupidity.

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Backup for Linux, Done Right- Part 1: A Mini Melodrama

 | 12:58 am

Time Drive

It is a terrible thing to realize that you are stuck in a rut.  Being in a rut effectively means that you’ve stopped advancing and life has evolved to monotony.  No one likes to be around people in ruts, but it’s even worse to discover that you are personally trapped in one.  And, most unfortunately, I am in a rut.

Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the home page of this blog.  You will likely notice that a full six of the ten most recent posts have dealt with one subject: backing up your computer.  That’s pretty conclusive evidence of a rut.

Now, backing up your computer is a very important thing to do; you should do it regularly and have a plan.  But … well … it’s boring.  Talking, thinking and writing about nothing but backup is dull.  As one of the doctors I work with likes to say, “That isn’t sexy.  If I’m going to spend any time with it – women, food, wine; it doesn’t matter – it should be sexy.”

He’s got a valid point, backup is not “sexy” and I’d like to write about things that are, at least for a while.  This, therefore, will be my last post on backups, archives, or servers for the relatively foreseeable future (technology is just too cool to lay it aside for too long).  But before doing that, I want summarize where I ended up in my quest for the ultimate backup system.

Backup on Mac is taken care of, I use Time Machine to a Samba share.  More adventurous persons than I might even say that this arrangement approaches sexy.  It’s convenient, fast, and robust.  It even covers disaster recovery.

Backup on Windows is also covered.  The built-in file backup is easy to use and works well.  Moreover, setting up a disaster recovery system is relatively painless.

But the third major operating system, Linux, is a bit of the odd-man out.  Certainly, you can find some excellent backup systems, Back In Time is one such example.  With a bit of work, you can even tweak it so that it is almost perfect.  But it’s the “almost perfect” and closely related cousins (“mostly useful” and “good enough”) that are the problem.  They have those stupid qualifiers – almost, mostly, enough – bolted on.

Any time you hear a qualifier, you can rest assured that you aren’t going to like what follows.  Consider the rather innocuous phrase, “that may be a problem.”   Here, the term “may,” makes an already bad situation much worse.  Instead of specifying some probability of problemhood, it all but guarantees it.  Positive qualifiers are just as bad.

As a result, it angers me that nearly every backup program available for Linux requires some kind of qualifier.  It shouldn't be like this.  Linux is a brilliant operating system in practically every way.  It is highly integrated, wonderfully modular and tremendously easy to extend.  So … after finding that nearly every backup utility in existence has failed to meet my needs, I found the situation intolerable and decided to do something about it.

I wrote my own.

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