MonthJanuary 2010

3D Fractal Images

3d fractal

Real 3D Mandelbulbs

(First saw this via Social Physicist, have seen it several places since)

Tobacco Plants Tapped to Grow Solar Cells

tobacco plants

Tobacco plants could help wean the world from fossil fuels, according to scientists from the University of California, Berkeley.

In a paper in the journal ACS Nano Letters, Matt Francis and his colleagues used genetically engineered bacteria to produce the building blocks for artificial photovoltaic and photochemical cells. The technique could be more environmentally friendly than traditional methods of making solar cells and could lead to cheap, temporary and biodegradable solar cells.

“Over billions of years, evolution has established exactly the right distances between chromophore to allow them to collect and use light from the sun with unparalleled efficiency,” said Francis. “We are trying to mimic these finely tuned systems using the tobacco mosaic virus.”

Discovery: Tobacco Plants Tapped to Grow Solar Cells

(via John Robb)

Solar-powered sea slug harnesses stolen plant genes

solar slug

It’s the ultimate form of solar power: eat a plant, become photosynthetic. Now researchers have found how one animal does just that.

Elysia chlorotica is a lurid green sea slug, with a gelatinous leaf-shaped body, that lives along the Atlantic seaboard of the US. What sets it apart from most other sea slugs is its ability to run on solar power.

Mary Rumpho of the University of Maine, is an expert on E. chlorotica and has now discovered how the sea slug gets this ability: it photosynthesises with genes “stolen” from the algae it eats.

New Scientist: Solar-powered sea slug harnesses stolen plant genes

(via WTF Nature)

Interview with neurodiversity advocate Kassiane

ASL sign for autism

Above: Kassiane giving the The American Sign Language sign for “autism.” The sign, which evokes the notion of “closed off,” raises issues in the neurodiversity community.

Kassiane, who prefers I don’t run her last name, is a neurodiversity advocate based in Portland, OR. She was born autistic & epileptic and has spoken at neurodiversity conferences around the world. She spoke to me via instant messenger. You can read her blog here.

Klint Finley: Could you give us a brief overview of what “neurodiversity” means, or at least what it means to you?

Kassiane: Neurodiversity, the word, simply means the whole variety of different brain wirings people have…from the different kinds of normal to the different kinds of not so normal. Then there’s Neurodiversity, the movement which is the shocking idea that people with non standard wiring are human and deserve to be treated as such without being “fixed” first.

What conditions may be included in the movement?

Autistic/Asperger people tend to make up the base of the movement, because we latch onto things so well, but we’re really inclusive…ADHD, learning disabilities, mental health issues, cognitive conditions like Down Syndrome, epilepsy, migraines, neurotypical allies, Not Diagnosed Just Weird…we’re accepting of pretty much everyone.

Is there a point at which a line is drawn between “neurodiverse” and disabled?

The 2 aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be different and disabled, but being disabled doesn’t keep you from being a human worthy of respect.

How did you get involved in the neurodiversity movement?

I was born autistic & epileptic, & being told I’m broken hasn’t ever gone over well with me. When I was 16 or 17 I read and saw there are other people who feel the same way, and it was like “Hot damn! community! whee!” and it just snowballed from there.

Are you involved in any particular organizations?

I’m involved with ASAN-Autistic Self Advocacy Network, & have done several conferences for Autism National Committee.

i am not a puzzle i am a person

Can you tell us about some of the activism you’ve been involved with?

Way back in the day at a big conference we petitioned to get a very abusive school kicked out of the exhibit hall of said large conference. Since the school in question doesnt believe in human rights it was big gesture, small step–we’ve been working to have them closed down for years.

ASAN has recently taken to picketing events that seek to eradicate autistic & other neurodivergent people, to show the public that eradication isn’t the only viewpoint. We’ve also done a lot of writing to congress and other important people.

I was also involved in the petitioning to have a teacher in Florida who voted a kid out of her classroom delicensed, though that’s all still pending.

Can you be more specific than “events that seek to eradicate autistic & other neurodivergent people”? What particular organizations do you think are problematic?

Oh, Autism Speaks. They totally need to climb a rope and let go. As do Defeat Autism Now!, TACA, and and Generation Rescue.

In what way do they seek to eradicate autistic people?

Prenatal testing to prevent us from being born, specifically. And then there’s the wackaloons who think it’s ok to kill us, who are always fun.

Who are the Wackaloons?

It’s a generic term that here means “person so far disconnected from realityland that I’m not sure how to deal with them” there are wackaloons in all those groups. They pop out of the woodwork when a kid is killed, or an adult, which happens far too often.

Gotcha. And so some wackaloons think it’s ok to kill autistic people who have already been born? What, as some sort of euthanasia? How common is that?

Well, this website is incomplete. And with every one of those in my memory, there were people defending the murderers. Not to mention the one I followed most closely in 2006 or so, where the whole town and even the newspaper were supportive of the killer.

Should neurodiversity be important to “neurotypicals”?

Of course.


I assume that a cookie cutter world is boring to you. And many people won’t be neurotypical forever. Besides that whole “civil rights” thing, which majorities aren’t always so awesome at.

By “many people won’t be neurotypical forever” are you referring to cognitive decline people experience with age?

Cognitive decline, head injuries, infections that affect the brain, neurological diseases, stroke…brains are fragile

Do you think the criminal justice system should treat people with an autism spectrum diagnoses differently than a “neurotypical” person?

It depends on the person, & on what they did. Like, if I go knock over the 7/11, I’m fully capable of knowing that’s wrong and of not doing it. But if someone has an irresistable compulsion to, say, go stare at fountains and gets arrested for tresspassing for staring at a fountain, their neurology may need to be taken into account.

Autism surely isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.

What do you think about use of the “r-word”?

Uhm. I hate it with the passion of 100,000,000 firey suns and have nearly gotten the shit kicked out of me on the bus for expressing this loathing.

To be honest I hadn’t really thought about it much before I read you ranting about it on Twitter a while back. But on further examination it’s weird how many people (myself included, unfortunately) would use the word without giving it a second thought, but would never defend the use of racial slurs.

Exactly! or they get all offended about homophobic slurs, but they throw around the r-word like a tennis ball. seriously? It’s not ok. It’s only remained ok because the people who it’s actually slamming are often unable to tell the ones using it to shove it.

It’s all about the power dynamics, & lack of creativity in insults.

What about using the suffix “tard” to create new slurs for specific groups (itards for Apple users, Paultards for Ron Paul supporters, etc.)?

That’s not any better. It’s not even creative. And it still comes from a place that says it’s ok to slam people who are cognitively disabled, and from a place that says “these people hold irrational to me beliefs because they’re cognitively impaired”

A year or two ago I read an article musing on the possibilities of creating pills that could temporarily “cure” or even *cause* autism. The basic idea is that someone born with autism could take a pill to become neurotypical at a party, or a neurotypical person could take a pill to become autistic temporarily to accomplish some particular task. Scientific feasibility aside, what do you think about such a possibility.

It’d be confusing in the extreme.

I couldn’t function in an NT brain, any more than you could function in my autistic brain. I’m USED to hearing and seeing and taking in everything and focusing on the details. Take that all away & for the duration of the dose, I’d be lost.

Give an NT autistic-like thought processes and perception, & they couldnt use the pattern recognition or hyperfocus or whatever…they’d be too busy looking for better earplugs and sunglasses because the lights are loud and flickering. Scientific feasability aside, there’s no way anyone would actually use it.

You can dual boot a computer. You can’t dual boot a brain.

More Information

The Autism Rights Movement article in New York Magazine.

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

Re-skinning the city – the dark side of augmented reality

who framed roger rabbit

Years ago, I had an idea for a futuristic pair of goggles that visually transformed homeless people into lovable animated cartoon characters. Instead of being confronted by the conscience-pricking sight of an abandoned heroin addict shivering themselves to sleep in a shop doorway, the rich city-dweller wearing the goggles would see Daffy Duck snoozing dreamily in a hammock. London would be transformed into something out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

What’s more, the goggles could be adapted to suit whichever level of poverty you wanted to ignore: by simply twisting a dial, you could replace not just the homeless but anyone who receives benefits, or wears cheap clothes, or has a regional accent, or watches ITV, and so on, right up the scale until it had obliterated all but the most grandiose royals.

At the time this seemed like a sick, far-off fantasy. By 2013, it’ll be just another customisable application you can download to your iBlinkers for 49p, alongside one that turns your friends into supermodels and your enemies into dormice.

Futurismic: Re-skinning the city – the dark side of augmented reality

Apple and Control Machines

apple: come see our latest restriction

In the days before the new Apple tablet was announced the anti-DRM group Defective by Design dubbed Apple’s announcement event the “Come see our latest restriction” event. Since then, there’s been a lot of chatter about the various limitations of the device – DRM, or otherwise.

I think some of these limitations could be important for the future of computing and media.

Limitations could be a feature – keeping people focused on reading. Perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking of this as a laptop or netbook alternative at all, but as an text reader and video player. Having a limited multitasking abilities and a lack of Flash might be a means to limit our level of distraction from e-mail and instant messaging. Stan Schroeder wrote for Mashable:

Then, there’s multi-tasking. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks this is a huge deal-breaker, but I think it makes sense. Although Steve Jobs was trying hard to prove to us that the iPad is a computer, it isn’t. Just like the iPod and the iPhone, its main purpose is to give the users an easy way to consume certain types of digital content. After music (iPod) and mobile applications (iPhone) comes iPad with video, photos, e-books, e-magazines, games. Apple doesn’t really want you to do complex photo editing on the iPad; you’ve got your Mac or PC for that. Apple wants you to touch a button, and start consuming content (preferably paying a couple of dollars for it).

Finally, the camera. Yes, it would be nice to have video chat. But once again, Apple wants you to do that on a Mac. If you want to snap photos, you should do it on the iPhone — you’re carrying it with you all the time, anyway. Once again, it becomes clear that Apple doesn’t want to sell devices that can do everything; they want to find the best form factor to consume some types of digital content, and then focus on them. If you look at it, you can do pretty much everything on your personal computer; by that philosophy, you don’t need anything else besides a laptop. And yet, you’ve now got smartphones and e-readers selling very well. Could it be that one powerful device is not as good as several less powerful, but more focused ones?

If that’s the case, and the iPad is just another consumer device and a paradigm, then it’s no big deal.

But if they’re letting users instal everything from the iPhone app store, then are they really designing useful limitations to keep the device focused? You can install apps that do just about anything, not just consume media. And the keyboard extension explicitly allows two-way media interaction.

Ultimately the lack of Flash or multitasking or a web cam seem trivial to me. They’re just features that may or may not be able to make or break the latest in consumer technology. And that’s just not important. But there’s a scarier possibility – that Apple is slowing easing its customers into an app-store centric world, where every app that runs on their platform on a “legitimate” (non-“jailbroken”) device has to pass their gates. It may sound conspiratorial, but I worry that Apple is trying to migrate their closed device paradigm from the mobile world (where that sort of thing is already pretty common) to the desktop world (where that’s unheard of). It’s strange that years after Trusted Computing became an information liberty concern, it’s been Apple, not Microsoft, leading the way to a more restrictive computing environment.

Peter Kirn at Create Digital Music has an extensive post considering the potential problems of the “closed Apple” world:

Apple already has a dangerously dominant position in the consumption of music and mobile software, and their iTunes-device link ensures that content goes through their store, their conduit, and ultimately their control. This means that developers are limited in what they can create for the device when it comes to media – a streaming app is okay, but an independent music store (like Amazon MP3 on Android) is not. Now, you can add to that Apple dominating book distribution. At a time when we have an opportunity to promote independent e-book publishing, the iPad is accompanied by launch deals from major traditional publishers. What does that mean for independent writers and content? […]

Apple threatens to split computing into two markets, one for “traditional,” “real” computers, and another for passive consumption devices that try to play games without physical controls and let you read books, watch movies, play music, and run apps so long as you’re willing to go through the conduit of a single company.

And, of course, this wouldn’t be worth my breath if not for my real concern: what if Apple actually succeeds? What if competitors follow this broken path, or fail to offer strong alternatives? The iPad today is a heck of a lot slicker than alternatives. It’s bad news for Linux, Windows, and Android, none of which have really workable competitors yet. It’s especially bad for Linux, in fact, which had a real chance to make its mark on mobile devices.

Timothy Blee makes the case that restricted computing will lose out in the market. I’m not so optimistic.

On not-so-dark note, I was disappointed at how uninnovative the iPad is. It’s just a big iPod touch, or a really crippled tablet pc. It seems like it could be an interesting musical insturment (a nice platform for RJDJ, for instance) It doesn’t seem like as much of a game changer as something like this:

microsoft courier

It’s unusual for Microsoft to out innovate Apple (or rather, to beat them to stealing good ideas), but their Courier seems to do just that. Of course, it’s vaporware right now, and could continue to be so, just like its abandoned predecessor the OLPC2:

olpc 2

Neuron breakthrough offers hope on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s


Emphasis mine:

Neurons have been created directly from skin cells for the first time, in a remarkable study that suggests that our biological makeup is far more versatile than previously thought.

If confirmed, the discovery that one tissue type can be genetically reprogrammed to become another, could revolutionise treatments for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, opening up the possibility of turning a patient’s own skin cells into the neurons that they need. […]

The work has been hailed as a huge conceptual leap forward in fundamental biology. “The possibility that cells could be directly reprogrammed is something that people had thought about, but to see it in black and white is still slightly shocking,” said Professor Jack Price, a neurobiologist at King’s College London. “This suggests that there are no great rules — you can reprogramme anything into anything else.”

Times Online: Neuron breakthrough offers hope on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

(Via Fred!)

Giant Crystal Cave Comes to Light

crystal cave Cueva de los Cristales

Geologist Juan Manuel García-Ruiz calls it “the Sistine Chapel of crystals,” but Superman could call it home.

A sort of south-of-the-border Fortress of Solitude, Mexico’s Cueva de los Cristales (Cave of Crystals) contains some of the world’s largest known natural crystals—translucent beams of gypsum as long as 36 feet (11 meters). […]

Modern-day mining operations exposed the natural wonder by pumping water out of the 30-by-90-foot (10-by-30-meter) cave, which was found in 2000 near the town of Delicias (Chihuahua state map). Now García-Ruiz is advising the mining company to preserve the caves.

National Geographic: Giant Crystal Cave Comes to Light

(via, indirectly, Angadc)

Journalists and bloggers: “create assets” instead of “writing stories”

future reporter

This advice is geared towards journalists, but could be applied all bloggers. It sound “biz speaky,” but I think this guy is correct. This sort of thinking could probably be applied elsewhere as well:

Look first toward creating evergreen assets that readers will continue searching for years in the future. These pieces should be written with search engine optimization in mind, and be stored at unique, easy-to-link URLs that are prominently featured in your site’s navigation.

In 1995, I wrote a short series of one-page tutorials on statistics that continue to be read by a couple thousand people each day. Those assets helped subsidize the next websites that I started, by paying their hosting fees and for some start-up equipment (laptops, cameras, etc.) I’d recommend that any journalist looking to establish himself or herself online start by identifying evergreen assets that he or she could create: how-to articles; sharp, concise explainers of complicated issues, smart guides to popular destinations, etc. Take what you know from your favorite beat and dive in.

Don’t fall into the trap of looking for popular search engine bait. How many people in two years will be looking for the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno posts that so many folks wrote last week? The most valuable assets have enduring value.

Online Journalism Review: Build a better journalism career by shifting your focus from writing stories to creating assets

I found this via Jay Rosen, who notes that when he writes his longer PressThink articles he tries to make them enduring assets and cites this as a specific example.

I might cite my biopunk article as an example of an asset.

(Photo by Repórter do Futuro / CC BY 2.0)

Update: Check out this PDF guide to creating “flagship content” – I like the term “flagship content” better than “asset.”

Twitter works on technology to evade censors in China and Iran

iran internet cafe

Twitter, the internet social network, is developing technology it hopes will prevent the Chinese and Iranian governments being able to censor its users. […]

Mr Williams, speaking at the World Economic Forum, said he admired Google for its decision last month to confront China over censorship and cyberattacks on its service, but said Twitter was too small to take a similar stand.

“We are partially blocked in China and other places and we were in Iran as well,” he said. “The most productive way to fight that is not by trying to engage China and other governments whose very being is against what we are about. I am hopeful there are technological ways around these barriers.”

Mr Williams said Twitter had an advantage in evading government censors through operating as a network of internet and mobile applications, rather than as a single website. “Twitter is a network that is accessed in thousands of ways.”

Financial Times: Twitter works on technology to evade censors in China and Iran

(via Wired)

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