• Harvesting metal from plants that suck it out of the ground Green sap being taken from a

    "Hyperaccumulator" plants grow in metal-rich soil—and suck a huge amount of metal out of the ground.

    If you cut open the leaf of a hyperaccumulator plant, you get sap that's blue-green, because it's fully 25% nickel. That's an astonishingly high concentration; it's higher than the ore that goes into a nickel smelter.

    This leads to a fun idea: What if, instead of mining rare minerals the traditional way—digging into the ground, a technique that requires tons of energy and damages the local ecosystem—you farmed them? Plant huge farms of hyperaccumulators on metal-rich soil, cut 'em when they mature, and extract the minerals. It even has a badass name: "Phytomining".

    A group of scientists and farmers are currently experimenting with this wild idea. They've published a paper about it here—"The first tropical 'metal farm'"—and the New York Times recently covered their experiments:

    They have the potential to remedy the mining industry's biggest problem: abandoned mines, which pollute waterways. A leftover mine, planted with hyper-accumulators, could salvage the remaining metals for additional revenue. That incentive could persuade companies to invest in rehabilitation or mine-waste cleanup.

    Currently, the most common way to extract nickel for electronics requires intense energy — often derived from coal and diesel — and creates heaps of acidic waste. A typical smelter costs hundreds of millions of dollars and requires increasingly scarce ore that is at least 1.2 percent rich with nickel.

    In contrast, plants on a small nickel farm could be harvested every six months on land where the nickel concentration is only 0.1 percent. After two decades, the roots would struggle to find enough nickel, but the land would have been sucked dry of its toxic metals, and fertile enough to support more common crops.

    If you want to dive into the academic literature, there are a ton of papers and book chapters at the web sites of two of the researchers noted in that story, Alan Baker and Antony van der Ent.

    (That CC-4.0-licensed photo of a hyperaccumulator tree, above, is courtesy Antony van der Ent!)

  • OpenAI discovers its visual AI can be fooled by written notes Image of AI mistakenly recognizing an Apple as an Ipod, because the word

    OpenAI has just published a fascinating piece pointing out the strengths of its top-of-the-line vision system — as well as one big weakness: You can fool it just by slapping a text label on an item.

    Write "iPod" on an apple and presto — the vision system thinks it's an iPod.

    The nut of the problem is thus: OpenAI discovered that its vision system (called CLIP) includes "multimodal neurons". These are neurons that respond to an abstract concept in several modes — as word or as a picture. For example, CLIP has a "spider-man" neuron that responds to a picture of a spider, a picture of Spider-Man, or even the written word "spider".

    This can make the AI quite powerful, of course! We humans have this precise ability to associate words and images that are clustered around the same concept. Our human brains, indeed, contain very similar "multimodal neurons": A few years ago neuroscientists discovered the "Halle Berry" multimodal neuron in humans, which responds to photos and sketches of the actor as well as the written text of her name.

    But the OpenAI folks also realized "multimodal neurons" had a weakness. If the AI associates a word with a visual concept, could you use words to hijack the AI?

    Indeed you can. They slapped the words "iPod" on an apple, making the AI think it was an iPod. They put dollar signs over a photo of a poodle, and the vision system thought the poodle was a piggy bank …

    The researchers also noted that some of the abstractions in these multimodal neurons can wind up being crudely racist, too:

    Our model, despite being trained on a curated subset of the internet, still inherits its many unchecked biases and associations. Many associations we have discovered appear to be benign, but yet we have discovered several cases where CLIP holds associations that could result in representational harm, such as denigration of certain individuals or groups.

    We have observed, for example, a "Middle East" neuron [1895] with an association with terrorism; and an "immigration" neuron [395] that responds to Latin America. We have even found a neuron that fires for both dark-skinned people and gorillas [1257], mirroring earlier photo tagging incidents in other models we consider unacceptable.

    OpenAI hit upon this hack because they were doing the right thing — trying to develop techniques to peer beneath the hood of their AI, to figure out how it's doing what it's doing, and how the AI might go astray. They were aware that neural-net-style AI can contain all sorts of muddled biases.

    Astute readers will note that these concerns are much the same as those in the paper that Timnit Gebru coauthored before Google pushed her out. I read Gebru's paper — you can, too; it's here — and I couldn't see anything in that ought to have set Google executive's noses so deeply out of joint. Quite the opposite: They should have been happy that someone was paying attention to how their industrially-scaled AI might go off the rails.

    Indeed, these sorts of concerns about AI are no longer radical at all! They're increasingly just common sense for anyone who's paying attention to the field. Anyone who doesn't have their head in the sand knows what OpenAI, too, states clearly in his research: That neural-net AI can be hoaxed, led astray, and be filled with biases it learned from its training material, and anyone commercially deploying that style of AI ought to be seriously focused on that problem.

  • How to survive an ostrich attack Cartoon of ostrich attack from Wikihow

    I never thought of ostriches as particularly dangerous — until I read the unexpectedly gripping Wikihow article on "How to Survive an Encounter with an Ostrich".

    Now I'm terrified! Basically, ostriches are velociraptors — capable of running 43 miles an hour, and possessed of "razor sharp talons" on legs powerful enough to deliver a 500-psi blow. They've also got a sharp beak on a neck with a lot range, and they stand seven to nine feet tall. They're pretty dumb, thankfully. But if you get into conflict with one they're nasty streetfighters.

    So, how to keep from having your ass handed to you by a Struthio camelus? The article's worth reading in full — not least for the awesome illustrations (the artist was clearly having fun with this one) — but basically you run for cover, hide, climb a tree, or as a last ditch prepare for combat.

    If you must fight …

    Use a long weapon. If you are forced to defend yourself against an ostrich, avoid close-quarters combat. Keep as far out of reach of its legs as you can. Use the nearest, longest object that could be used as a weapon, such as a pole, rake, broom, or branch.

    If you have a gun and need to use it, aim for the ostrich's main body to better ensure hitting your target. Although they will be attacking with their legs and/or beak, their legs and neck are very thin and easy to miss.

    Keep to the ostrich's side. Consider yourself at the most risk when the two of you are face-to-face. Remember that an ostrich is only able to kick its legs directly in front of it. Stay behind or to the side of the bird as much as possible to keep clear of its most powerful weapon.

    Aim for the neck. Consider this to be the ostrich's weakest body part. Strike it where it is most vulnerable and least protected to defeat it more quickly. Failing that, aim for its breast. Concentrate your efforts between the two as opportunity affords. Continue to strike until it quits and runs away.

  • Web tool that generates flowcharts from text Screenshot of flowchart.fun

    Behold flowchart.fun, a little web tool that generates a quick-and-dirty flowchart from text. You type in words; they appear in a flowchart box. To make a new box with a pointer going towards it, you indent the line. You can link back to an earlier box by using its line number.

    I used this text, for example …

    To create this flow-chart (it's a bit small here to see the print at this size, alas):

    I can imagine using this to quickly generate surreal flow-charts to hassle my friends and family over messaging and email.

    Source code is here if anyone wants to remix it. I might take a crack at making the thickness of the box-lines adjustable.

  • Robot hears by using the ear of a dead locust Screenshot of

    Astute readers will recall the "Smellicopter" from last fall, a robot that used an amputated moth antenna to navigate toward smells.

    Robot-insect hybrids seems to be a hot area, because now a team at Tel Aviv University has announced the "Ear-bot"—a robot tricked out with the ear of a dead locust, which it uses to hear.

    As they explain in their press briefing here, they euthanized a locust, then quickly removed its ear and kept it alive in a small chamber mounted on the robot. This "Ear-on-a-Chip" system was able to help the robot recognize and response to hand-claps.

    As with the Smellicopter, I read the scientific paper with the now-familiar combo of i) detached, monocle-adjusting appreciation for the remarkable technical achievement, mixed with ii) skin-crawling dread at our approaching future where drones and robots will be guided and animated by dead animal parts.

    As the researchers note in their press release, animal sensory organs are quite efficient and have sensitivities that can beat artificial ones:

    "In general, biological systems have a huge advantage over technological systems — both in terms of sensitivity and in terms of energy consumption. This initiative of Tel Aviv University researchers opens the door to sensory integrations between robots and insects — and may make much more cumbersome and expensive developments in the field of robotics redundant.

    "It should be understood that biological systems expend negligible energy compared to electronic systems. They are miniature, and therefore also extremely economical and efficient. For the sake of comparison, a laptop consumes about 100 watts per hour, while the human brain consumes about 20 watts a day. Nature is much more advanced than we are, so we should use it. The principle we have demonstrated can be used and applied to other senses, such as smell, sight and touch. For example, some animals have amazing abilities to detect explosives or drugs; the creation of a robot with a biological nose could help us preserve human life and identify criminals in a way that is not possible today. Some animals know how to detect diseases. Others can sense earthquakes. The sky is the limit."

  • Surgeon joins Zoom meeting while his patient lies on operating table Screenshot of video showing surgeon attending court case while in surgery

    To add to our towering ziggurat of pandemic Zoom incidents, we can add this one: A California surgeon showed up for his online traffic-court date during surgery.

    Despite the surgeon insisting that he was totally fine to continue with the court appearance, the flabbergasted judge wisely insisted the doctor come back another time, ideally when he wasn't about to, y'know, cut into someone.

    The Sacramento Bee reports:

    "Hello, Mr. Green? Are you available for trial?" asked a courtroom clerk. "It kind of looks like you're in an operating room right now?"

    "I am, sir," Green replied. "Yes, I'm in an operating room right now. I'm available for trial. Go right ahead."

    Traffic trials are required by law to be open to the public. With limited access to courtrooms due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Sacramento Superior Court proceedings are livestreamed and posted to YouTube.

    Green wasn't fazed as, head down, he continued his work, but Link wasn't amused even as the commissioner tried to absorb what he was seeing on his monitor.

    "So unless I'm mistaken, I'm seeing a defendant that's in the middle of an operating room appearing to be actively engaged in providing services to a patient. Is that correct, Mr. Green? Or should I say Dr. Green?" Link asked over the sounds of suction and the beep-beep of medical devices.

    Go read the rest of the piece, and watch the video, in which the judge and surgeon haggle over whether the court appearance ought to continue. It's pretty surreal.

  • Video shows the shape of a flock of starlings evading a hawk Screenshot of

    Xai Bou is a photographer who takes photos not of birds, but of the movements of birds — the shapes they trace as they move through the sky.

    A while ago he did a project called Ornithographies, in which he'd take rapid-fire photos — several times a second — and stitch them together to make a photo that shows a bird's complex flight path. (You can see those remarkable pix at his site here.)

    Recently he released "Murmurations", a video that uses this technique to illustrate a flock of starlings evading a hawk. Again, he took thousands of split-second images, then used them to produce a moving image.

    It's like a mesmerizing form of dataviz — the action of the birds abstracted into vectors of pure movement.

    As Bou describes it to Audobon:

    "What happens is, if in this moment a hawk appears to attack them, it's when they do this dance," he says. "The hawk is like carving this ephemeral sculpture that's in the air." As with the still images, Bou knit multiple series of photographs together to create an animation. He estimates that every day of filming requires two weeks of post-production work; for Murmurations, he also enlisted the help of a film editor. The final product, which was filmed in southern Catalonia, was then set to ethereal music. [snip]

    The idea for Ornithographies began with a paw print he saw while hiking in the Mediterranean forests of Catalonia. "I thought to myself, what kind of tracks would leave the birds in the sky?" Bou says. "I imagined these shapes." [snip]

    As Bou began developing the project, he didn't want people's analytical brains to kick in when they saw his work. He didn't want a viewer thinking about the tilt of the wings or the shape of the feathers at a particular moment, as one might while looking at a series of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge, one of the original chronophotographers. "I don't want to see the 'bird, bird, bird'," Bou explains. He found that by overlapping photos taken in quick succession, you lose the shape of the bird, revealing instead a "complete new organic shape."

  • Animating old photos using AI Photo animated by MyHeritage

    MyHeritage, a company for "discovering family history" — as they describe themselves — has released "Deep Nostalgia", which uses AI to animate photos. Upload a picture, and the AI produces a gif that smiles, blinks, and moves its eyes around.

    It's based on tech by D-ID, and yowsa is it ever unsettling!

    I'm certain that some people will an animated photo of their grandfather heartwarming. Personally, I find it both a) technologically super intriguing and b) skin-crawlingly weird. Even MyHeritage itself notes, in its FAQ, that one's mileage may vary on this one …

    This technology is fascinating but a bit uncanny, don't you think?

    Some people love the Deep Nostalgia™ feature and consider it magical, while others find it creepy and dislike it. Indeed, the results can be controversial and it's hard to stay indifferent to this technology. We invite you to create videos using this feature and share them on social media to see what your friends and family think. This feature is intended for nostalgic use, that is, to bring beloved ancestors back to life. Our driver videos don't include speech in order to prevent abuse of this , such as the creation of "deep fake" vi deos of living people. Please use this feature on your own historical photos and not on photos featuring living people without their permission.

    MyHeritage markets this as a way to animate old family photos, but as I understand it, there's nothing stopping anyone from using it to animate a newer photo. So: How's this gonna be used to troll and abuse people? It'll happen, though precisely what forms it'll take I can't yet hazard.

  • The pandemic is producing a golden age of stooping Photo of a sofa from @nycfreeatthecurb

    In New York City, it's common to walk down the sidewalk and see pristine furniture being thrown out. People get rid of stuff a lot, because apartment-space is tight. If you buy something new and it takes up any space, you gotta chuck out something of equivalent size. It's like living on the International Space Station.

    Now it seems the pandemic has triggered a new boom in people chucking out top-notch furnishings. Why? The New York Times wrote a story on the trend, and figures it's a combo of people fleeing the city, plus extra-industrial spring cleaning by those who are staying put. If you're suddenly forced to spend all your time in your apartment — with no backyard or front yard to escape to — you might decide to freshen the place up.

    Some Instagram accounts have cropped up to document the free stuff being given away. There's @nycfreeatthecurb, run by Sonia Izak and P.J. Gach and @stoopinginqueens, run by Jessica Wolff.

    As the Times writes:

    On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it was chandeliers, a Tiffany bracelet and a vintage velvet chair with silver-colored rams' heads. In Jackson Heights in Queens, it was a Korean wedding chest, and in Park Slope in Brooklyn, a giant stiletto chair with a purple zebra pattern.

    All of these, remarkably, were free.

    They were just a few of the items that have been found discarded on the stoops or streets of New York City over the past year, a byproduct of the pandemic that has amounted to such an abundance of valuable trash that some are calling it "The Golden Age of Free Stuff." [snip]

    The velvet chair with rams' heads on the Upper East Side was in fairly good condition; similar ones are selling online for over $1,000. A Japanese-style four-panel screen showing red-crested cranes was spotted in front of the United Nations headquarters, prompting speculation that it had belonged to a diplomat. [snip]

    A piano made of dark wood tossed out in Alphabet City in Manhattan. A bowling ball (with a leather case) available in Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. A terrifying-looking dollhouse and an equally nightmare-inducing portrait of a family of cats were up for grabs on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One resident even left a pet turtle out on their stoop. (It has since found a new home.)

    I messaged P.J. Gach to get permission to use photos from @nycfreeatthecurb, and she rang me up, so we chatted about the phenomenon. She agreed that people leaving NYC were likely a cause of some of this new rogue wave of cast-aside furnishings.

    "People are leaving!" she said. "I was talking to a porter for a building and he said people had moved out and literally left all their furniture behind. And thrift shops aren't picking stuff up any more in the pandemic." The other element prompting so much furniture-tossing is that a nontrivial chunk of younger people fleeing New York, Gach notes, are going to live with their parents, so there's no room for them to bring along their old NYC furnishings anyway.

    Gach said she herself has been a big fan of stooping in NYC for years. Almost twenty years ago she was on a first date in the East Village when she spotted a pristine Ikea chair "with ivory fabric, perfect for my bedroom", sitting discarded on the sidewalk. She grabbed it and carried it with her all night long.

    "The chair went with me on the date," she laughs. Indeed, her partner for the evening turned out to be a bad fit for her; the chair, in contrast, was perfect, and she used it for years. "I had a lot better relationship with that chair than with my date."

    I just took a quick survey of stuff in my Brooklyn home that I grabbed off stoops, and it currently includes a fantastic-quality black hoodie, a lamp, a restaurant-style metal rack, and a vintage 1950s-era elementary-school desk.

    Some pics from @nycfreeatthecurb, reprinted here with permission from Gach …

  • Coca-Cola testing a paper-based bottle Screenshot of paper bottle made by Paboco

    Coca-Cola has been working on a paper-based bottle, and this summer it'll test it — by producing a 2,000-bottle run of its fruit drink Adez, in Hungary.

    That video above is by Paboco, a Danish firm that's developing the bottle for Coca-Cola. The BBC spoke to executives there:

    Michael Michelsen, the firm's commercial manager, says the bottles are formed out of a single piece of paper-fibre-based material to give them strength.

    "That's part of the secret really," he explained, adding that moulding a single object – rather than relying on joins – ensured the bonds between the fibres stayed robust.

    "With a clever combination of product design and the strong fibre blend, that's what makes it really possible to not break under pressure."

    Coca-Cola and Absolut's trials will be the first real-world test of whether the technology holds up to the rough-and-tumble logistics of food transport. [snip]

    "You need to get into that real world and you need to get that real world feedback," Mr Michelsen said.

    But even if the tests go flawlessly, the real challenge lies in getting rid of plastic altogether.

    Because the paper cannot come into direct contact with liquids, the plan is to use a plant-based coating on the inside of the bottle.

    "It's going to be a bio-based barrier, that's really something minimal, that keeps that food safe, that keeps the product safe at the same time," Mr Michelsen said.

    I'll be interested to see how well this works. I'd be particularly intrigued to see a full-cost-accounting (of carbon output, of materials, etc.) for how a paper-based bottle like this would compared to a plastic bottle or aluminum can.

    Plastic bottles are an absolute disaster. Cities for decades have set up recycling programs for plastic containers, and it turns out only a tiny percentage of them were recycled. As NPR decisively documented last year, the plastics industry knew decades ago that recycling plastic single-use containers wasn't going to happen — but they produced huge public-relations campaigns encouraging it, to make consumers feel okay about buying so much plastic. "I'll recycle it!"

    It was smoke and mirrors. For years I dutifully put my plastic recycling curbside, out of a combination of habit and a fundamentally medieval calculation of guilty indulgences. But these days I know the jig is up. All my single-use plastics are going into the trash-heap; at least, the parts that don't wind up as microplastics in my spleen, or macroplastics in whale-guts.

    Aluminum single-use cans are a more complex ecological/economic calculation, as this story notes. Aluminum emits monstrous amounts of C02 when it's first created, but, once made, is genuinely recyclable. Plus, its lighter weight and heat transmission means aluminum containers emit less C02 in transportation and refrigeration. I can't glean, from any of these stories about paper bottles, how a paper bottle stack up against aluminum. Hopefully better?

    One also wonders what the practical and moral proportions are here: How much these efforts to deplastify consumption are fig-leaves of greenwashing vs. genuine steps towards making things better. It's nearly always "both", though I can't tell what percentages are in play here. The Paboco executives seem intent on eventually making a bottle that doesn't wind up in the waste stream. With Coca-Cola, it's harder to tell. They're bottom-line-focused, so they're unlikely to scale this stuff fast without serious pressure.

    I'm predispositionally intrigued by cool engineering, so generally I'm "paper bottles, woo!" But engineering is only part of the picture. Weaning ourselves off plastics is gonna require a full-spectrum response, including cultural change and regulations to firmly push huge firms along. But hopefully this bottle is one small step in that direction.

  • NASA hid an Easter Egg in the parachute for Perseverance Screenshot of NASA video showing Perservance's parachute opening up

    When NASA released photos and video of Perseverance being lowered to the surface of Mars (screengrab above), astute Internet folk noticed the weird pattern on the parachute. Did it have some secret meaning?

    It did! Various folks, ranging from @FrenchTech_paf on Twitter to Redditors, figured out that the red-and-white stripes represent character codes spelling out "DARE MIGHTY THINGS", a motto of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA also included the geolocation code for JPL.

    Here's a fun video breaking it down:

    And Kim Zetter has a good thread that includes a good visualization of how the code was embedded in the colors:

    (Thanks to Jack Taylor for pointing this one out!)

  • An argument for making hockey nets bigger

    Ken Dryden—an author, and former NHL goalie and Canadian politician and author—has written an intriguing piece on the ballooning size of goalies, and how it has changed pro hockey.

    Basically, as goalies have gotten taller, and their padding bulkier, they take up more space in net; so much, indeed, that there's now only a small chunk of the nearby rink from which you can plausibly score. This has the effect of making the activity on the rest of the ice less relevant. No matter how much the players in those other positions hone their skills, they're less relevant to the game.

    How to fix this situation? Putting less padding on goalies isn't very easy, because they are, after all, having pucks shot towards them at ferocious speeds. So maybe one idea is to make the nets slightly bigger, Dryden concludes:

    Maybe there is no foreseeable way to make the goalie smaller. Maybe you have to make the net bigger. Don't fight using an old, losing narrative. Change the narrative. New golf-club technology made courses too short, so championship courses got longer. A lighter soccer ball allows players to do tricks with its flight, in some ways making soccer's already huge net even bigger. A player can shoot the ball several feet outside the net's 24-foot width and curl it around the goalie ("bend it like Beckham"). Or he can shoot it several feet above the net's 8-foot-high bar and drop it down ("loop it like Lionel" Messi). A hockey puck is too dense and moves too fast for that. But the size of a hockey net could change, and the change needn't be too much. Maybe only six inches or a foot wider, maybe only six inches higher. And only for those in junior and college leagues and above. Just so a goalie's carefully constructed, seamless wall can't cover everything. So a goalie has to move, has to play off his goal line, has to go up and down. So he has to open up. So the slivers of open space are a little bigger. So he doesn't think he can stop everything, and a shooter can think he might score. So an unscreened shot from farther than 20 feet might go in. So more "off the rush" goals might be scored. So players would want, and need, to spread out. So the action doesn't always funnel and congest. And the rest of the ice surface matters. So all the skills the other players have developed, and will develop, matter. So the game is defined by every player on the ice, not just the goalie. So the dog isn't wagged by the tail.

    It's a long and nuanced essay, touching not just on hockey but how transformations of other games—like basketball—illuminate the challenges that face hockey. Go read the whole thing!

  • First stamp designed by Alaskan indigenous artist, showing Raven stealing the sun Trickster stamp designed by Rico Worl

    USPS asked Rico Lanáat' Worl, a Tlingit and Athabascan artist, to create a stamp. He drew an awesome piece showing Raven, the Trickster, stealing the sun.

    Over at his web site, Worl tells a short version of the traditional story that his image is based on. In the story, the world is living in darkness, with no celestial lights. There's a chieftain who owns big collection of lights, so Raven sneakily becomes part of the family, then sets about setting the lights free.

    As Worl writes:

    The stamp depicts a moment of climax in one of his heists. Stealing the stars. Raven is trying to grab as many stars as he can, some stuck in his feathers and in his hands or in his beak. Some falling around him. Its a frazzled moment of adrenaline. Partially still in human form, as depicted as his hand still being human, as he carries the stars away. I think it depicts a moment we all have experienced, the cusp of failure and accomplishment.

    I can't wait to buy a sheet of these! I don't really send many letters any more, but I'd like to have a sheet just to look it — this is really iconic art.

  • Pigs can play video games Photo of pig playing a video game

    A group of researchers has spent the last 20 years testing pigs to see how well they can play a computer game—in which the pigs use a joystick to maneuver a dot on-screen towards a target.

    The scientists finally published a paper concluding that, yep, the pigs have some mad skills. It's all the more remarkable because the game was designed for primate hands, yet the pigs had to play it using their snouts.

    The full paper, unpaywalled, is here; Gizmodo spoke to researchers and got some terrific comments:

    "We've known for ages that pigs could do all sorts of learning and problem-solving. Any farmer can tell you this, and many scientists have demonstrated it," Croney said. "What's different here…is that the pigs had to grasp the very difficult concept that the thing they were manipulating (the joystick) was having its effect on a 2-dimensional computer-generated image (the cursor) that they could not touch, smell or interact with directly. That sort of conceptual learning is a huge mental leap for any animal, as this would never happen in the real world."

    "There is nothing in the natural behavior or evolutionary history of the pig that would have suggested they could do this to any degree," Croney added. [snip]

    "What makes these findings even more important is that the pigs in this study displayed self-agency," Marino added, "which is the ability to recognize that one's' own actions make a difference."

    I shouldn't eat any more bacon. I am going to have to stop eating bacon. Pigs are just awesome and brilliant.

  • Using sound to reduce motion-sickness in cars Photo of car by Brian Kelly

    Volvo thinks self-driving cars will create a motion-sickness problem: Because passengers will probably kill time by staring at their phones, they'll get queasy.

    Seems likely! Motion-sickness is caused by a perceptual rupture — your body feels itself moving around, but your eyes see a stationary screen.

    Volvo's engineers hypothesized that they could reconnect one's body to the movement of the car by using sound. So they created an experimental car that plays tones one second before accelerating, decelerating, or turning.

    In one (quite small) study, the sounds indeed seemed to help reduce people's discomfort, as Popular Science writes:

    The most compelling experiment took place on a closed airstrip in Sweden, near Gothenburg, in August of last year. (For other research, focused on the issue of trust, Volvo used virtual reality.) On that track, brave participants had to ride in the backseat of a car driven by a human and read from a tablet while the car navigated the course. The words they were reading came from what Hagman describes as "a very heavy text."

    These riders "took three laps on this track," Hagman says. "After each lap, they were asked to rate their perceived motion sickness." Half of these guinea pigs had sound cues to help them during the ride, and half did not. Participants came back one week later to receive the opposite experience. The sounds reflected what the car was going to do in about one second: accelerate, decelerate, or turn. Volvo refers to these as "intention" sounds. (There's more info, and audio samples, here.)

    With just 20 people, the study was small, but according to Volvo, the presence of sound cues made people report that they felt less ill. "As you took more and more laps, the effect even got more significant," Hagman says. "You could see that there was an effect of reduced perceived motion sickness when we added sound." [snip]

    Volvo reports that participants said the sounds helped prep them physically, or "adjust their bodies," for what was about to happen.

    It's a cool concept. And frankly I'd like to see this technology rolled out now, in cabs or ride-hail cars. I don't need to wait for self-driving cars to know that carsickness is an issue! When I take taxis in NYC, I frequently get wickedly carsick from all the sudden stops, starts, and rapid turns.

    (CC-2.0-licensed photo of a car courtesy the Flickr feed of Brian Kelly)

  • Illustrations of plant-root systems from 1919 Image of root system from

    In 1919, the American biologist John Ernest Weaver published The Ecological Relations of Roots, a study of the root-systems of desert plants. It contains some truly amazing hand-drawn illustrations of roots; he credits Annie Mogensen and F. C. Jean for working on the images.

    I'd love to blow up one of these as a huge poster to put on my wall! I'm not sure if I could get scans high-res enough to make them really big, but the whole book is scanned and in the public domain over the Internet Archive.

    I originally found these via a post about Weaver's book over at Socks, where the bloggers clipped out some of the most striking images; but below are a few of my faves …

  • Odd lifeforms discovered under a half-mile of Antarctic ice Screenshot of video of discovery of Antarctic sea life

    Scientists were down in Antarctica, drilling through a half-mile of ice to try and grab some seafloor sediment. When they finally pierced through, they dropped a camera down to discover they'd accidentally hit a rock, which was a big pain in the butt.

    Except it turned out to a weirdly lucky strike, because the camera revealed that the rock was, unexpectedly, covered in life.

    The scientists put up a thread with some video here …

    … and Wired's Matt Simon has a great story on the discovery, including some intriguing hypotheses about how the heck the lifeforms down there are getting food. Because wow, they're awfully far from any source of energy:

    Wrong place for collecting seafloor muck, but the absolute right place for a one-in-a-million shot at finding life in an environment that scientists didn't reckon could support much of it. Smith is no biologist, but his colleague, Huw Griffiths of the British Antarctic Survey, is. When Griffiths watched the footage back in the UK, he noticed a kind of film on the rock, likely a layer of bacteria known as a microbial mat. An alien-like sponge and other stalked animals dangled from the rock, while stouter, cylindrical sponges hugged the surface. The rock was also lined with wispy filaments, perhaps a component of the bacterial mats, or perhaps a peculiar animal known as a hydroid.

    The rock Smith had accidentally discovered is 160 miles from daylight—that is, the nearest edge of the shelf, where ice ends and the open ocean begins. It's hundreds of miles from the nearest location that might be a source of food—a spot that would have enough sunlight to fuel an ecosystem, and be in the right position relative to the rock for known currents to supply these creatures with sustenance.

    Not to tell life its business, but it's got no right being here. "It's not the most exciting-looking rock—if you don't know where it is," says Griffiths, lead author of a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science. [snip]

    But because the researchers couldn't collect specimens, they can't yet say what exactly these sponges and other critters could be eating. Some sponges filter organic detritus from the water, whereas others are carnivorous, feasting on tiny animals. "That would be sort of your headline of the year," says Christopher Mah, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian, who wasn't involved in the research. "Killer Sponges, Living in the Dark, Cold Recesses of Antarctica, Where No Life Can Survive."

  • Rival Peak lets thousands of players control characters living in a Lost-like world Screenshot of game

    Back in 2014, a Twitch streamer launched a fascinating crowdsourced experiment called "Twitch Plays Pokemon", in which a programmer coded a system that would play Pokemon Red, controlled entirely by instructions typed into the chat by viewers of the stream. It quickly became a wild, chaotic hit. Over a million participants showed up to type in commands, which arrived in such a frantic pace that the system strained to deal with them all—including, of course, constant fighting for control by loosely-coordinated factions in the chat. It was nutty but mesmerizing.

    Now there's a browser game—"Rival Peak"—that riffs off precisely this style of play. Created by the firm Genvid and hosted on Facebook (click here to jump immediately into the game, if you're logged into Facebook), it consists of twelve AI characters who are plunked into a situation that's a mix between Lost and Survivor: They're put on a mountain filled with mysterious technology that has a weird backstory, and they try to unravel what's going on, while also competing to be the last person standing, with one AI character getting voted off each week.

    The AI characters have some agency, but they're also — in a Twich/Pokemon way — guided by the humans who are playing the game. If you go to the game, you can click on a character, see what they're doing, and decide to click-help them with their current task. Characters are voted off based on how much or little engagement them get from the humans who drift by the game.

    But—again, as with Twitch/Pokemon—each individual act of you, the player, doesn't have that much influence on the game. It's more like nudging things in a direction. You're as much as spectator as a participant. It's a bit like playing The Sims, really, except if there were an a) an overall plot and b) thousands of people simultaneously playing the exact set of Sims you're playing. Genvid says around 600,000 people have played the game so far.

    It's a weird game to create, too, as the creators note, because it required them to write 160,000 words of dialogue, though some will never be seen if the AI—and player clicks—don't create actions that initiate those interactions. (The plot that has transpired is pretty meta, though: At various points the AI characters realize, in a sort of Redshirts fashion, that they're not entirely in control of their own fates.)

    Overall, a super weird and intriguing experiment! The game/story launched on Dec. 2, and it's wrapping up on February 26, so you can still check out the finale events on a daily basis. There are weekly video recaps of what's transpired in the game, hosted by Wil Wheaton; if you're in the game itself, you can click on the little book icon to read daily text recaps what's happened over the past few weeks.

    As the creators describe the game here:

    Rival Peak is built on the idea that interactive stories should be based around the entire audience, not just a single viewer. That your decisions should have consequences to you and to others. That there are no "do-overs", no "pausing" and no way to know who will win. During its twelve week run, the world of Rival Peak never stops, its characters are constantly in motion, and the story unfolds as the audience decides.

    This means you're neither player, nor viewer. You're a participant, a director, a God. And entrusted to you is a world inhabited by 12 AI contestants fighting to survive elimination and unravel the mysteries of the Rival Peak mountain. Over the next three months, these contestants will survive the wilderness, survive each other, and maybe survive elimination. As a result, the world will be changing weekly, with the map transforming and new areas unveiled.

    And while there's no "right" way to engage in Rival Peak, there is also not a predetermined winner. Facebook's billions of users will have the opportunity to pick (or fight over) on everything. Every minute watched, dialogue read, and vote cast will increase a character's score and change the story.

  • "Weirding module" for guitar

    Pedal of the Day reviews the Atreides Analog Weirding Module, which is so delightful and nutty that I want to buy this pedal and record an entire album of straight-up unlistenable noise pop. I play electric guitar in a country band (the Delorean Sisters, go listen to it here on Spotify or Bandcamp wooo), so my f/x units are pretty standard — some distortion, some compression, some delay and reverb.

    But holy moses, the gnarly roars and swoops produced by Way Huge's latest are out of this world. You can check out the sounds in that video. As the creators describe it:

    Offering a kaleidoscope of organic synth-like tones, Atreides generates an explosion of growly sub-octave, expressive vocal envelope, swooshing phase, and gnarly fuzz. Inspired by a vintage 1980 mini synthesizer, this consciousness-awakening device produces a monophonic effect with many layers that can be manipulated as needed through dynamic playing technique and adjustment of each of its several sliders.

    The VOL slider sets overall output level, the SENS slider sets envelope filter sensitivity and the RANGE slider adjusts envelope filter range. BRIGHT sets overall EQ, FUZZ sets fuzz signal level, while the RATE slider sets speed of phase signal and the SUB slider adjusts blend of sub octave signal. The look and feel of the sliders add to the vintage, throwback spirit of this pedal, launching us clear into the video arcades we frequented in our youth.

    My family is gonna be so thrilled when I start filling the house with aural chaos from one of these things.

  • Murder ballads were the original true-crime media Image of

    Over at JSTOR Daily, Jody Amable digs through the scholarly literature on murder ballads and discovers they were an early form of true-crime media: Songwriters would rip lurid stories from the headlines, set them to music, and watch them go viral.

    As Amable writes:

    Murder ballads are "the oldest form of crime literature," as the true crime writer Harold Schechter wrote in The Yale Review. They're the first place Americans sought cheap thrills based on a true story. They were innovated by broadside balladeers of the British Isles. Broadsides were one of the first forms of printed news: as advances in printing made publishing cheap, pamphlets or posters were printed with the news of the day. They were written to appeal to a wide range of people, some of whom couldn't read. The "ballad" style—a modern-day poem or song—was a common format, as they could easily be orated or set to music. The style made the news accessible to all, and, as the English professor Erik Nebeker noted in "The Broadside Ballad and Textual Public," encouraged public debate. As art forms, they were also a form of entertainment, introducing an element of sensationalism we'd later see in tabloids.

    Some ballads crossed the Atlantic with the wave of English and Scottish settlers to Appalachia. As cities and towns flourished, and justice systems organized, ballads became folk songs that told of the people and issues in the singer's community. Songs like "John Hardy," "Stagger Lee," "Jesse James," and later, "The Murder of the Lawson Family" covered true events. As the folklore scholar Ann Reichman notes in Folklore in Utah, ballads were often composed at the time of trial as a means of getting the word out about local events.

    I super dig this way of looking at it! I spent a few minutes poking around on Spotify for playlists of murder ballads, and found this one by Esquire magazine, a massive one of 211 songs, and one of "Settling the Score: Murder Ballads by Women".

    (That public-domain image of the illustration for "Jesse James at Long Branch" courtesy Wikimedia)