2000+ year old Greek computer reinterpreted

The Antikythera mechanism, recovered off a sunken ship in Greece in 1900, is thought to be a clockwork device to calculate the orbits of the celestial bodies. New analysis of the remaining fragments shows that it was wicked-cool:
The Greeks believed in an earth-centric universe and accounted for celestial bodies' motions using elaborate models based on epicycles, in which each body describes a circle (the epicycle) around a point that itself moves in a circle around the earth. Mr Wright found evidence that the Antikythera mechanism would have been able to reproduce the motions of the sun and moon accurately, using an epicyclic model devised by Hipparchus, and of the planets Mercury and Venus, using an epicyclic model derived by Apollonius of Perga. (These models, which predate the mechanism, were subsequently incorporated into the work of Claudius Ptolemy in the second century AD.)

A device that just modelled the motions of the sun, moon, Mercury and Venus does not make much sense. But if an upper layer of mechanism had been built, and lost, these extra gears could have modelled the motions of the three other planets known at the time—Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In other words, the device may have been able to predict the positions of the known celestial bodies for any given date with a respectable degree of accuracy, using bronze pointers on a circular dial with the constellations of the zodiac running round its edge.

Link Discuss (Thanks, Mark!)

Dan Gillmor responds to Jack Valenti

Dan Gillmor interviewed Jack Valenti last week in his column and did the impartial thing, representing Valenti's beliefs as fairly as possible. This week, Dan takes Valenti's arguments apart, looking at what Hollywood's agenda really entails:
So the movie and music companies are going back to Congress for another helping. They are asking for laws that would force technology innovators to restrict the capabilities of devices -- cripple PCs and other machines that communicate so they can't make copies the copyright holders don't explicitly allow. Amazingly, the entertainment industry also wants permission to hack into networks and machines they believe are being used to violate copyrights.

Here is what it all means. To protect a business model and thwart even the possibility of infringement, the cartel wants technology companies to ask permission before they can innovate. The media giants want to keep information flow centralized, to control the new medium as if it's nothing but a jazzed-up television. Instead of accepting, as they do today, that a certain amount of penny-ante infringement will occur and then going after the major-league pirates, they call every act of infringement -- and some things that aren't infringement at all -- an act of piracy or stealing. Saying it doesn't make it so.

Link Discuss

Automotive software Easter Egg discovered

Slashdot's reporting that according to the current ish of Popular Science, an Easter Egg has been discovered in the transmission control software for the BMW M3:
...the proper combination of commands to the electronically controlled manual transmission will cause the car to rev up to 4000rpm and drop the clutch...
Are we sure that this is a feature and not a bug? Link Discuss

Disney's no-good Park-Czar replaced

Disney has named a new president of Walt Disney Parks, replacing Paul Pressler, the exec who did his damnedest to ruin Disneyland, slashing spending (at the expense of safety and employee satisfaction), building the craptastical California Adventure, reducing the number of SKUs available for sale in the Park stores, and so on. The new president, James Rasulo, used to be head of Euro Disney. Link Discuss

Turkey City Lexicon

After the talk at UT Austin, I spent Saturday at the Turkey City science fiction writers' workshop at Bruce Sterling's place. Turkey City is a venerable science fiction workshop that has spawned many good writers and a lexicon of science fiction critical terms that is the de facto standard for understanding what works and what doesn't in a work of science fiction:
Squid on the Mantelpiece

Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third. In other words, a plot element should be deployed in a timely fashion and with proper dramatic emphasis. However, in SF plotting the MacGuffins are often so overwhelming that they cause conventional plot structures to collapse. It's hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad's bank overdraft when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city. This mismatch between the conventional dramatic proprieties and SF's extreme, grotesque, or visionary thematics is known as the "squid on the mantelpiece."

Card Tricks in the Dark

Elaborately contrived plot which arrives at (a) the punchline of a private joke no reader will get or (b) the display of some bit of learned trivia relevant only to the author. This stunt may be intensely ingenious, and very gratifying to the author, but it serves no visible fictional purpose. (Attr. Tim Powers)

I had the cold from hell all weekend and I'm jetlagged, but I wanted to get some links up before I hit the sack. Until tomorrow! Link Discuss

My talk at UT Austin

I've been in Austin all weekend. On Friday, I spoke at the University of Texas about EFF issues. Jon Lebkowsky was there -- hell, he organized it -- and he blogged the hell out of the talk:
Entertainment industry has tradition of attacking technology: the piano roll, the radio (sued by vaudeville), television (would destroy cinema!), "the Betamax affair"... the latter being the first consumer VCR. In Betamax case, argued that the ability to make a full copy of a broadcast work would not be a fair use (in terms of copyright). It was illegal enough that the VCR should be kept off the market, they argued. The Supreme Court got the case, and the thing that shook out of it was the Betamax principle: a technology is legal so long as it has substantial non-infringeing uses. This principle is under attack.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 1998. Illegal to defeat a copyright measure. Regionalization system for DVDs. This is a control that limits distribution. John Johansen in Norway figured out how to break the content scrambling system and allows you to move from one region to another, override copy protection. It was called DeCSS - Johansen is facing trial for creating a piece of code.

Link (Wes blogged it, too) Discuss

Underwater high-voltage photography

Stefan sez: "My brother's friend Sue plays with high voltage. The linked-to page shows the gadget she used to photograph high voltage discharges in *water*." Link Discuss (Thanks, Stefan!)

Nostalgia for analog cameras

Minox has just shipped a teensy digital camera that looks like "a miniaturized Leica M3 classic camera of the fifties with digital interior." Link Discuss (Thanks, Jef!)

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom reviewed on Blog Critics

Kevin Marks reviews my novel, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom," on blogcritics.org:
About once every ten years, a Science Fiction novel appears that redefines the art form. One that describes a world different from our own, but recognisably ours - extrapolated from current trends, but richly evocative of its difference, adding words to the language that needed to be coined. Books like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy,Snow Crash and now Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

What these books have in common are worlds that draw you in and make you believe in the technological underpinnings, accepting them implicitly and learning their terminology (TANSTAAFL, frood, Metaverse, Whuffie) as you go, while you follow the adventures of characters you come to care about.

Link Discuss (Thanks, Kevin!)

Turd-harvested coffee in the news

Another one of those end-of-history headlines: "Marsupial-manure coffee is flying off the shelves." This isnt' a very new story; turd-java (where the partially digested beans are harvested from the feces of an animal that eats 'em in the wild) has been a weird-ass coffee-fetish that's been creeping into the mainstream for a couple years. And what coul dbe more mainstream than a conservative cattle-country burg like Edmonton?
Coffee fanatics in Vancouver and Edmonton are paying $150 per quarter-pound for the privilege of taking home coffee that came from the poo of an odd marsupial...

The result is worth $600 a pound and has a chocolatey taste.

Link Discuss (Thanks, Dave!)

Software Defined Radio defined

Eric Blossom, the developer behind GNU Radio, is interviewed on Slashdot today. GNU Radio is a free-software Software Defined Radio project, wherein an oatmeal PC and some commodity radio hardware are combined to make a device that can tune and demodulate a wide range of signals, from 802.11b to FM radio to cellular; in other words, it's a recipe for turning your computer into a universal radio. It will also be illegal under the Braodcast Flag initiatives working their way through Congress, the FCC and WIPO right now. Link Discuss

My interview with Howard Rheingold

I interviewed Howard Rheingold about his new book, Smart Mobs, for TheFeature. Link Discuss

Haunted Mansion movie inches forward

Disney's put up a little brochureware site about its forthcoming (and very exciting!) film based on the Haunted Mansion ride, a followup to the Country Bears movie (I may be the only adult in the world who enjoyed that one). All that's there now is a downlaodable poster, which is pretty keen, except for this supercillious bit of legal crapola you have to click through to get at it.
Disney Pictures hereby grants you a limited, nonexclusive, nontransferable, one-year royalty free license to use and display the Images on your site in accordance with the terms below. Nothing herein by implication or otherwise, shall grant you any rights other than as explicitly set forth below.

You shall receive HTML code and GIF file (the "Files") from Disney Pictures to incorporate the Images into your site. You agree not to modify the Files in any way. Acceptance and use of the Files indicates acceptance of these terms of use. If you do not accept these terms of use, you must not use or display the Files. This license will commence when you receive the Files and will terminate automatically, one year later, or immediately upon any violation of these terms of use. Also, we reserve the right to terminate this license at any time, in our sole discretion, upon notice to you.

Link Discuss (Thanks, Amanda!)

Notes from infamous Guards/Prisoners experiment

Alena sez: "Details of the infamous 1971 Prison Experiment at Stanford University (these types of experiments are today banned due to the psychological harm inflicted on the subjects). In the study, ordinary college students, who responded to an ad for paid subjects of an experiment, were randomly assigned to one of two groups, prisoners or guards, in a simulated prison environment. The ensuing startlingly rapid transformation of ordinary young people (and of Psychology professors!) into sadistic prison guards and fearful, hopeless, and identity-stripped prisoners is astounding."
Prisoner #8612 began suffering from acute emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying, and rage. In spite of all of this, we had already come to think so much like prison authorities that we thought he was trying to "con" us -- to fool us into releasing him... [A] colleague had heard we were doing an experiment, and he came to see what was going on. I briefly described what we were up to, and Gordon asked: "Say, what's the independent variable in this study?" I got really angry at him. Here I had a prison break on my hands. The security of my men and the stability of my prison was at stake, and now, I had to deal with this bleeding-heart, liberal, academic, effete dingdong who was concerned about the independent variable!
Link Discuss (Thanks, Alena!)

Rats' intestines and pigs' teeth

This is the headline of the month, possibly the year: "Doctors Grow Pig Teeth in Rat Intestines." Do we even need to read the story to understand it? It's like a freaking haiku of near-singularity, future-shocky wonderment!
U.S. doctors said on Thursday they have managed to grow living pig teeth in rats, a feat of biotechnology that experts said could spark a dental revolution.

Researchers at Boston's Forsyth Institute said their successful experiment suggests the existence of dental stem cells, which could one day allow a person to replace a lost tooth with an identical one grown from his or her own cells.

"The ability to identify, isolate and propagate dental stem cells to use in biological replacement tooth therapy has the potential to revolutionize dentistry," said Dominick DePaola, president and CEO of the institute that focuses on oral and facial science.

Link Discuss (Thanks, Dave!)