Sign Game: tricks of the trade from a professional sign painter

It’s always fun to cruise through Fantagraphics’s store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. You never know what you might stumble across amid the new comics releases, independent zines and assorted odd runs and old stock there. I happened upon a copy of Justin Green’s Sign Game (ST Publications and Last Gasp Of San Francisco). It's an 80-page paperback collection from 1995 of the monthly comic strips Green did for the sign painter’s trade newsletter Signs of the Times from back in the 1980s and 90s.

As detailed in Green’s comics, that was a turbulent time of transition for sign painters. Just as desktop publishing and digital photography transformed the graphic design and photography businesses (ask bankrupt Kodak about that!), the dawn of the computerized vinyl letter cutting machines undid the business of hand-lettered and painted signage.

Each densely rich comic takes on one arcane aspect of this dying art, from the ins and outs of doing gold leaf lettering, or how to wield a mahlstick, to the fine points of font design and brush technique needed for painting on the corrugated surface of metal trucks. Green’s sardonic tone and hilarious perspective also illustrate each hard won lesson of running a business, filled with characters like hard-boiled artists, chiseling customers, and back-biting competitors.

As a comic, Green’s one-page masterpieces employs a myriad of graphic techniques: send ups of Johnson Smith & Co. catalog layouts, Goofus and Gallant-ish profiles, Dick Tracy Crimebsuters comic crooks, and an endless supply of cartoon lettering intro panel gimmicks that ape plexiglass, peeling vinyl letters and stencils.

One installment is most telling: his predictions for the sign biz from 1994. Many were already coming true then, like computer-less mini vinyl letter-cutting systems. One thing he did NOT foresee: the current hipster renaissance for all things artisanal—like hand painted signs and lettering! A brand new book and documentary film Sign Painters by Faithe Levine and Sam Macon promises to tell that tale, and I hope it will be as funny and informative as Green’s Sign Game. -- Bob Knetzger

Sign Game, by Justin Green. 1995, 80 pages. $12 and up (out of print)

Space vehicles, to scale

Digging this drawing by astronomy blogger Invader Xan, showing spaceships of the past, present, and (possible?) future lined up side-by-side for size comparison. I, for one, just learn that the Space Shuttle Orbiter was larger than I thought in comparison to the International Space Station.

Also cool: Skylon—a rather terrifying name for a spaceplane that's currently in the early stages of development by a private company. Interestingly (or, perhaps, even more terrifyingly—seriously, this thing is going to need a new name, like woah), Skylon would not have a human pilot but would be capable of hauling humans into space, carrying up to 24 in a special box loaded into the payload bay.

Check out Invader Xan's blog, Supernova Condensate, for more information, including a version of this graphic that includes the Starship Enterprise.

Via Ananyo Bhattacharya

Send Wonder: the Anything is Possible Bottle

For several years I've been watching Jamie D. Grant's Send Wonder project to both great amazement and joy.

Grant, a fabulous magician, has systematically stumbled into a way to place a sealed pack of cards into a completely unaltered milk-bottle; but he didn't stop there. Grant also started leaving the bottles in random locations around his hometown of Vancouver B.C. simply asking the people who find them to identify when and where they found the prize (which they are welcome to keep). A project he calls "Send Wonder".

Having zero artistic talent, however, I focused on what I know and love- magic. Via a series of events that will never be replicated in my lifetime I'm sure, I stumbled upon a way of getting a sealed deck of cards inside a milk bottle, without altering the glass whatsoever. And, with that, the "Anything Is Possible" bottle was born.
The photo below is of a special deck of White Lions cards, part of a limited edition series Jamie did with magician David Blaine. Over the years Jamie's incredible bottles have found their way around the world, they sit in Eastern European bars, on the desks of celebrities and in the most awesome palace of prestidigitation -- the Magic Castle (of which I am also a member).

I encourage you to keep an eye out for his bottles, they seem to pop-up everywhere.

The battery beneath your feet

How many batteries have you used today?

Energy storage devices have become an integral part of our lives, but they still aren't really a part of our electric grid. There are some good reasons for that—at that scale of storage, batteries become gigantic and extremely expensive. But the lack of storage on the grid has some distinct drawbacks, putting the stability of our electric system at risk and making it harder to add in lots of renewable energy generation.

Because of that, researchers are looking for ways to get the benefits of batteries without some of the detriments. There are lots of different ways to do this, but one solution is particularly awesome to describe. Hint: It involves caves.

Last Friday, I had a guest post on i09 explaining Compressed Air Energy Storage, an old technology that could be one of the most cost-effective ways to store energy at a grid scale.

At any given moment, there must be almost exactly the same amount of electricity being produced as there is being consumed. If the balance tilts either way-even by a fraction of a percent-it could lead to a blackout. To simply keep the lights on, the grid has to be constantly monitored, with controllers predicting demand and making small adjustments, minute-by-minute, to supply. This happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

... That's where CAES comes in. CAES systems store energy underground in the form of compressed air, but to make it work you have to start with the right kind of geology. In particular, you need a space that's airtight. This means that you can't just pump air into the sort of cave you've toured while on vacation. Instead, you have to find a hollowed-out space underground that used to hold something naturally-such as a natural gas reservoir that's had all of the gas pumped out of it.

Read the rest at i09

Learn more about how the grid works and why storage is so important by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Holes in porous rock, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from blmurch's photostream

Explore Mars on your computer

Want to check out the surface of Mars the way you'd use Google Earth? HiRise makes it possible. (Via artimusclyde on Submitterator)

Photo taken by a beer can

This gorgeous photo of a statue in England called The Angel of the North was taken by Justin Quinnell, over the course of three months, using a pinhole camera made out of a beer can. Yes, the parabola is the path of the Sun, with the highest peak being June 21. New Scientist has more information on how Quinnell made this photo. (Via Roger Highfield)

Surfing the red tide

Phytoplankton are tiny, plant-like organisms that live in the ocean and are, basically, at the very bottom of the food chain. But, sometimes, they get their revenge. When lots and lots and lots of phytoplankton get together, they can form what we call a "red tide," a discoloration of the water at a particular point where the plankton have become densely concentrated.

Some red tides are natural. Others happen when nutrient runoff from farm fertilizers creates a massive buffet for plankton. Some red tides can kill, as the plankton can produce toxins and their deaths reduce the oxygen content of the water. And sometimes, red tides glow in the dark.

The phytoplankton in this red tide off a California beach are bioluminescent. Their cells produce a chemical reaction that creates a soft, blue-green glow. It's basically the same thing that makes lightning bugs light. In this video by Loghan Call and Man's Best Media, you can see plankton light up in the beach (and a few surfers).

Video Link

Via Jennifer Ouellette

Free webinar on history of medieval physics

On the Shoulders of Eastern Giants: The Forgotten Contributions of Medieval Physicists is a webinar, happening Thursday, October 20th. It's hosted by the Institute of Physics, and will focus on the history of some great Muslim scholars who have been largely forgotten about in the West. This sounds super cool, and it is free, but you do need to register ahead of time. (Via Sarah Kavassalis)

Traffic signals for the colorblind

I don't know why this never occurred to me before, but today on Twitter, several people who are attending the 2011 Accessibility Summit pointed out that traffic lights aren't, traditionally, accessible. Think about it. If you're colorblind, does red, yellow, green tell you as much information as you need, as easily and quickly as you need to know it?

Turns out, some Canadian provinces deal with this by adding shapes to the lights, as well as colors. This is an example from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Thanks to Seth Meranda for linking it!

Image: Sprocket at en.wikipedia. Used via CC.

Science shot of the day

"Boom! Blood stem cells generated from skin cells." — From the Google+ feed of Erik Westin, post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Playing games to fight HIV

A couple of years ago, I told you about Foldit, a computer game that harnesses the power of human putzing to help scientists unravel the mysteries of protein structure. There's a new research paper out that uses results from Foldit as a basis for a new proposed structure of a key protein in a virus that is a relative of HIV.

As important as proteins are, we know relatively little about how and why these complex chains of amino acids fold and twist the way they do and how that structure relates to function. Foldit takes advantage of the fact that, given the right rules, people can come up with possible, plausible protein structures far faster than a computer program can factor out all the possible permutations. And that's why Foldit players—citizen scientists of a sort—were so useful in this case. Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science explains:

They discovered the structure of a protein belonging to the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV), a close relative of HIV that causes AIDS in monkeys. These viruses create many of their proteins in one big block. They need to be cut apart, and the viruses use a scissor enzyme –a protease – to do that. Many scientists are trying to find drugs that disable the proteases. If they don’t work, the virus is hobbled – it’s like a mechanic that cannot remove any of her tools from their box.

To disable M-PMV’s protease, we need to know exactly what it looks like. Like real scissors, the proteases come in two halves that need to lock together in order to work. If we knew where the halves joined together, we could create drugs that prevent them from uniting. But until now, scientists have only been able to discern the structure of the two halves together. They have spent more than ten years trying to solve structure of a single isolated half, without any success.

The Foldit players had no such problems. They came up with several answers, one of which was almost close to perfect. In a few days, Khatib had refined their solution to deduce the protein’s final structure, and he has already spotted features that could make attractive targets for new drugs.

“This is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem,” writes Khatib. “These results indi­cate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”

Animals and the amygdala

As part of a cool project in blogging on Google+ ("plogging"), Nature editor Noah Gray writes about a recent experiment that found that specific neurons in the human amygdala respond instantly to images of animals. These responses were stronger and faster than when other neurons responded to those images, and stronger and faster than when the animal-centric neurons responded to other types of images.

The amygdala is well known to be involved in fear modulation and memory, as well as influencing other types of emotional processing. So is it expected that cells in this structure would respond so strongly to the sight of animals? There is a moderate precedent from the non-human primate literature. Studies in macaques have revealed strong firing of amygdalar neurons to faces, so categorical responses aren't unique in the amygdala. This is true in humans as well, but humans also maintain a different dedicated brain region for face processing, perhaps opening up some portions of the amygdala to take on additional, different roles. But why would we need a dedicated system for animal imagery, elevating this particular stimulus to such an important position in our recognition system? Well this is all speculation, but it isn't difficult to state the obvious and stress that animals were critical as prey for our ancient ancestors, as well as potential threats. Thus, early man may have developed a system to speed our reaction times to such an important category as the landscape was visually scanned for information. Placing this system in a brain region critical to emotion processing could have also more-easily mobilized action through a rapid activation of attack or flight responses.

Image: Animal Kingdom Sign, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from pixeljones's photostream