Tracking orbital trash

In the visualization above, each of the white dots is a piece of orbital garbage in Low Earth Orbit (1,240 miles above the planet) that NASA is currently tracking. ScienceNews posted an article about "the largest junkyard in the solar system," explaining how the trash is monitored and why it can be incredibly dangerous. The feature is in their "For Kids" section but I found it quite informative myself. From ScienceNews:

There are some unusual things up there, like a camera that floated away from astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams in December 2006. Other astronauts have lost tools like wrenches and screwdrivers. In 1965 astronaut Ed White even lost a spare glove. Most of the junk, however, comes from large satellites and rockets that fell apart after they stopped working.

Together, all the space junk would weigh about 11 million pounds on Earth, or more than 3,000 cars. The largest piece is a part of a rocket about the size of a minivan. The smallest piece would fit on your pinkie fingernail with room to spare...

Space junk races around the Earth at breakneck speeds. Most pieces fly through space at more than 20 times the speed that sound travels on Earth. Going that fast, even the smallest pieces mean big trouble for spacecraft. For example, a tiny marble in orbit around the Earth can have as much energy as a bowling ball going 500 miles per hour, or a car going 30 miles per hour.

"The Solar System's Biggest Junkyard" (ScienceNews) Read the rest

Radio announcer undisturbed by studio fire

When a fire breaks out in a radio station in Greece, the announcer can't be bothered to put it out. (via Arbroath) Read the rest

Cookie Monster Slayer

This killer Cookie Monster Slayer was spotted at the Dragon*Con 08 fantasy/SF convention earlier this month. Nancy Dorsner of Dabbled brought back the photographic evidence. Cookie Monster Slayer (Flickr via Laughing Squid) Read the rest

Portraits from MySpace and Facebook

Artists Paul Campbell and Dominic Paul Moore paint portraits based on images from social networking sites. Above, one of Campbell's Facebook portraits. At left, Moore's "Mandii" (graphite on yupo), sourced from My(death)Space, an archival obituary site of MySpace users. Their work can currently be scene in a joint show titled "Profile Me" at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana. From the exhibition description:

Paul Campbell and Dominic Paul Moore introduce contemporary portraiture through sources from increasingly popular internet social environments and bring transitory self-absorbed profiles into the white static walls of Hammes Gallery. In the two-person ehibition entitled "Profile Me" curated by Sara Ebers, Campbell and Moore offer different perspectives and objectives to this current trend.

Campbell and Moore make tangible the intangible and raise issues of identification and social interactions as these virtual profiles are removed from screen to canvas and from your monitor to gallery walls.

Show preview (, "My(death)Space" (, Read the rest

Print Your Own Money

Everyone seems to want to know about the economy these days, so we may as well go there. It's as great an example as any of a program that not only got out of control, but became so prevalent - so accepted - that we came to take it for granted. We think of the economy and its rules as given circumstances, when they are actually constructions.

In brief, the money we use is just one kind of money. Invented in the Renaissance, and protected with laws banning other kinds of money, it has very particular biases that lead to almost inevitable outcomes.

I just finished a book (more on that later in the week), where I make the case that our highly corporatized society was really forged during the Renaissance. Aristocrats were losing power just as a new merchant class was gaining it. So they made a series of deals through which merchants' companies were granted monopoly charters from the monarchs in return for a sweet cut of the proceeds. Merchants got to lock in their status as newly rich, while monarchs stopped their own descent. Merchants supported the monarchs whose charters granted them exclusive access to new territories or industries, and monarchs got to do colonial expansion once-removed.

The invention of centralized, national currency was meant to support all this. Where localities had previously been free to mint their own currency based on the crops they had grown, now they were forced to borrow money from a central bank. Read the rest

Voice-controlled robot wheelchair

MIT researchers are designing a wheelchair that responds to verbal commands and remembers how to get various places. Outside, it uses GPS for wayfinding. Inside though, GPS doesn't work so well so the researchers are investigating positioning schemes using WiFi, cameras, and laser rangefinders. They're currently testing a prototype in a Boston nursing home. From MIT News Office:

Just by saying "take me to the cafeteria" or "go to my room," the wheelchair user would be able to avoid the need for controlling every twist and turn of the route and could simply sit back and relax as the chair moves from one place to another based on a map stored in its memory.

"It's a system that can learn and adapt to the user," says Nicholas Roy, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics and co-developer of the wheelchair. "People have different preferences and different ways of referring" to places and objects, he says, and the aim is to have each wheelchair personalized for its user and the user's environment.

Unlike other attempts to program wheelchairs or other mobile devices, which rely on an intensive process of manually capturing a detailed map of a building, the MIT system can learn about its environment in much the same way as a person would: By being taken around once on a guided tour, with important places identified along the way. For example, as the wheelchair is pushed around a nursing home for the first time, the patient or a caregiver would say: "this is my room" or "here we are in the foyer" or "nurse's station."

Read the rest

Burning Bookmark

Just in time for Banned Books Week (9/27-10/4), the good folks at Gama-Go are taking orders for this new "Burning Bookmark." It's $6. Burning Bookmark (GAMA-GO) Read the rest

How Children Learn: classic of human, kid-centered learning

Earlier this year, a reader sent me copies of John Holt's classic books on children's education, How Children Learn and How Children Fail and tonight, I finished the first of them (and will be reading the other next). It was one of the most profoundly moving books I've ever read, the truest account of how I remember my best learning experiences as a child and an adult.

Holt was a dedicated teacher and a very, very keen observer of children from babyhood up. Most of How Children Learn takes the form of notes from his diaries, his later reflections on his failures and successes, and letters and feedback from other parents and educators.

Holt's basic thesis is that kids want to learn, are natural learners, and will learn more if we recognize that and let them explore their worlds, acting as respectful co-learners instead of bosses. Practically speaking, that means letting them play and playing with them, but resisting the temptation to quiz them on their knowledge or to patronize them. Most resonant for me was his description of kids' learning unfolding from the natural passionate obsessions that overtake them -- it made me remember my best learning moments, like the time when I was 7 and my teacher Bev Pannikar found me reading Alice in Wonderland to myself in a corner of her classroom, and she just let me be, as I branched out from there to book after book, hiding out and falling in lifelong love with reading. Or the time that Brian Kerr found me afire with a passion for math and just let me go at it, working through workbook after workbook to the detriment of my other studies -- I think I was ten. Read the rest


I played with Android yesterday. I don't gush over products. At least not in years. But this one makes me feel a bit like I did when I got my Kaypro. It's a solid device that hints at the beginning of a "golden age" of solid and reliable smart phone technology.

For those of you as uninformed as I've been lately, Android is Google's new cell phone operating system, coming to you any day now on a phone made by HTC - the folks who have been making the Treo (but without their own name on the case).

I've played with a lot of phones, but this is the first true "smart phone" that is as easy to use as an iPhone, Sidekick, or Helio Ocean. Unlike the iPhone, it has a real keyboard that slips out from the bottom (and a bit more effortlessly than the one on my Ocean). Real keys, too, that feel good and click.

Oh, did I forget to mention it? Copy and paste.

The touchscreen interface does everything I could think of, as easily or moreso than the screen on the iPhone. Less of that weird delay-jitter. Extreme clarity. Everything in its place. It's not like trying to operate a laptop through a two-inch screen.

What I like best about Google's approach (as compared to some other companies who shall remain nameless) is that they're creating a site where people can just upload the apps that they've written for the phone. No licensing, filtering, or requirements - other than they not be malicious. Read the rest