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Beautiful Engineering

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 15-Jan-2011 by asqui

I have previously written about Harry Eng’s Impossible Bottles but there is another style of beautiful engineering which is not so much impossible but involves painstaking dedication, ingenuity, and sometimes a touch of insanity.

Exhibit A: Handmade Vacuum Tubes

Claude Pilliard enjoys creating vacuum tube amplifiers from scratch, as seen in this step-by-step video.

Exhibit B: Binary Adding Machine in Wood

An elegant adding machine made of wood and using marbles to represent numbers in binary, complete with correct handling of numeric overflow.

More information and other wooden marble contraptions here.

Exhibit C: Home Made Coding Machine

Beautifully engineered Enigma-like "coding machine" hand made by Tatjana van Vark.



“Each wheel has 509 parts.” Incredible!

Exhibit D: Jet Powered Beetle

I have previously written about Ron Patrick’s rather unique home-modified WV Beetle, and I remain impressed with his engineering skills.

It is street legal and technically a “hybrid”, since it has two methods of propulsion.

Jet Powered Beetle

What a nutcase!

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Blackheath Fireworks 2010 Finale

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 09-Nov-2010 by asqui

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Mathematics is the language of nature

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 24-May-2010 by asqui

11:15, restate my assumptions:

  1. Mathematics is the language of nature.
  2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
  3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge.

Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.

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When life becomes one giant game

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 03-May-2010 by asqui

Jesse Schell gives a brief walkthrough of what the world would be like if everything was somehow interconnected as part of one giant game, where you get points for waking up on time and for brushing your teeth, and changeable e-ink tattoos that earn you points through the “Tatoogle AdSense” programme, and a new high-score on your daughter’s piano practice earns her points for her Arts Council funded music scholarship...

It’s only 10 minutes long; hang around for the finale, it’s good.

“Anyway, I’m not sure about all that, but I do know this stuff is coming. Man, it’s got to come; what’s going to stop it?”

[Via TED: Best of the Web]

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Happy Holidays

 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 12-Dec-2009 by asqui

Happy Holidays from the Straight No Chaser men’s a capella, Indiana University.

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B&H Photo Video

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 20-May-2009 by asqui

My current digital camera is one I bought in New York City a few years ago, at a spectacular store called B&H Photo Video. I was reminded of B&H by Joel Spolsky's recent article highlighting the fact that Circuit City went out of business yet B&H Photo Video still thrives. The reason for this is that B&H is an awesome place to go shopping for photo and video equipment.


I was visiting the USA and on the look-out for a digital camera. I visited all the usual big-name consumer electronics stores and the technology counters in department stores, but was continually disappointed by the apparent lack of sales expertise in the products. When I ended up in New York and met up with Zack, he recommended B&H to me, he said it was the place to go for a camera. It turned out I had walked past the store earlier that very day, without so much as noticing. I'm observant like that. (Maybe it was because they didn't have a shiny store-front with lots of eye-catching technology right in the window, like all the other over-priced tourist-trap camera stores in New York City.)

Zack was right. This store was huge, and had all sorts of photo/video related stuff inside. I went in and started looking at cameras. The nearest salesperson closed a sale and then asked me if I needed assistance so I started talking to him about the cameras I was considering. He clearly knew what he was talking about when he started talking about comparative CCD sensor sizes between the models, then breifly paused to help another customer change the language on a camera from Japanese — he seemed to know the menu structure on that particular model off by heart, since I'm pretty sure he wasn't fluent in Japanese.

Most of the employees were Jewish and the store ran to military precision. The workflow was like this:

  1. As soon as you go near the cameras some guy starts explaining every feature to you, answers all your questions, and generally knows what he's talking about (most of the people at other places I'd been to didn't know the cameras that intimately)
  2. You eventually decide on a camera, after having the sales assistant explain the intricate details and relative merits of your candidate selections
  3. He scribbles down some product codes for your chosen camera and accessories and tells you to take it to a guy at a computer terminal
  4. The guy at the computer punches in the barcodes and takes some details down, then says "It'll be here in a minute"
  5. Some other guy brings over your order in a green crate, with a receipt
  6. You take the receipt to the payment counter (without the goods) where you pay using the method of your choice and get a receipt
  7. Finally, you take your receipt to the goods counter and pick up your neatly packed order.

I'm not sure why their system is so arcane, but I expect it's to deal with high demand situations. I was there at closing time on a weekday, and people were buying cameras at the rate of one every few minutes. At peak times I expect their system deals admirably. (Joel postulates that the system is an anti-theft measure, by involving multiple staff in each sale, but I doubt that's the reason.)

Each of the "counters" I mentioned above have an airport-check-in-style zig-zag queue cordoned off in front and room for about 5-10 staff members at the counter.

They also have an elaborate roof-mounted transport system for moving orders out of the stock rooms.

If you're looking for a camera and happen to be in or near New York City, go to B&H. Heck, go there even if you're not looking for a camera, just for the cultural experience!

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Biking Skills

 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 22-Apr-2009 by asqui

You may have heard of Le Parkour or Free Running. Now try that on a bike!

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My style is the best

 4 Comments- Add comment Written on 14-Apr-2009 by asqui
You won't find this illustrated in your mobile phone user guide...
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Alex Roy — Transcontinental Driver

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 04-Mar-2009 by asqui

After participating in a couple of Gumball 3000 events (a 3000 mile rally where nice cars race through the streets of numerous countries for a week or so) Alex Roy decided to drive across the USA, nonstop, in a record time of 31 hours 7 minutes, in a largely modified BMW M3. 90.1mph average speed; top speeds of 160mph+.

If you think that’s a little bit reckless, think again… he spent 5 years planning for this with a full team of dedicated people. Did a couple of "low speed" trial runs of the full route, then watched the video footage non-stop in real-time (when's the last time you watched a 30 hour movie non-stop?) to fully learn from the mistakes they made. They had GPS devices, radio scanners, laser jammers, real-time traffic and weather reports, something like seven cameras mounted on the car (including a thermal imaging camera in the front grill feeding a 7-inch dashboard-mounted display… you know, for night driving), and also (now get this) a spotter plane flying overhead.

“If we don’t break [the current transcontinental record] we’re going
to double the fuel-cell capacity and bring two planes next time.”

It all sounds a bit gung ho but it's exactly the opposite. They reviewed driver transcripts from similar things that had been done previously so they could learn everything they could. Analysed fuel economies in Excel spreadsheets. Looked up potential speed-trap locations, reviewed low-angle air photographs of the areas, marked them up on their GPS guidance. Looked at traffic laws and maximal jail sentences in each state so they could set the cruise control 1mph below the relevant thresholds. They developed threat analyses and operational protocols that dictated what should be done in various situations.

These people are, basically, insane.

Here's an informative presentation Alex did at Google to promote his book.

(Just wait until he breaks out the full post-mortem analysis of how they
nearly got pulled over for dangerous driving, complete with Google Earth
3D fly-by view of the relevant highway junction, vehicle positions, and
conclusions that both they and the police made several mistakes.)

Alex Roy clearly subscribes to the policy that "If you're gonna do it right you've gotta do it hard-core."

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How do aircraft stop after landing?

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 14-Jan-2009 by asqui

How do commercial aircraft stop after landing? Apparently it's a combination of disc brakes, spoilers, and engine thrust reversal.

In extreme circumstances the brakes alone can be used, but this is best avoided. To find out why, take a look at this video of a Boeing 777 performing a "Rejected Take Off" test, stopping from 210mph, fully laden, using the brakes alone:

Result: Carbon brake discs and pads glowing at 3,000ºC, melting the tires, and destroying the wheels. (The success criteria for the test was that the entire plane didn't catch fire!)

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Dan Gilbert: Exploring the frontiers of happiness

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 19-Dec-2008 by asqui

I just viewed this TED presentation by Dan Gilbert where he mashes up psychology, economics, and a little bit of comedy to deliver a fairly awesome half-hour of educational entertainment.

Just watch the first 5 minutes, you'll see...

Brought to you by TED: Ideas Worth Spreading


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Disappearing Car Doors

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 05-Sep-2008 by asqui
Check this out for a spot of novel design:

It's quite interesting to see what radical changes one can make
to something as seemingly simple as a car door mechanism.
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Seam Carving for Content-Aware Image Resizing

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 11-Jul-2008 by asqui

Seam Carving is a technique for intelligent image resizing that allows images to be automagically re-sized to fit different spaces (for example, different devices, with different amounts of screen real-estate).

Seam Carved Sample
Seam Carved Image — Magic!

This is the magic of Seam Carving, as presented at the SIGGRAPH 2007 conference by Shai Avidan and Ariel Shamir.

What's more, is that the algorithm can easily be run in reverse, to artificially widen an image.

Take a look at this short demonstration video:

All the geeky details are available in their academic paper, available from www.seamcarving.com.

I found out about this technique when I came across Mike Swanson's proof-of-concept implementation.

(Sample images for this blog post were taken from here.)

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Chess boxing

 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 19-May-2008 by asqui

Chess Boxing"Chess boxing is a hybrid sport which combines the sport of boxing with games of chess in alternating rounds."

And I'm not even kidding. Web 2.0 mashups have entered the sports arena.

Who said chess isn't a real sport?

"Competitors may win by knockout, checkmate, a judge's decision or if their opponent's twelve minutes of chess time elapses."

Even Chris Morris couldn't have conceived of this!
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MacBook Air: Design Critique Ad from IBM

 3 Comments- Add comment Written on 06-May-2008 by asqui
The MacBook Air might be thin, but is it actually useful? IBM thinks not.

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Weird Behaviour

 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 30-Apr-2008 by asqui

In the interest of violating cultural constraints, 207 people conspire to freeze in suspended animation for five minutes amidst the hustle and bustle of New York's Grand Central Station.

It's amusing to see the onlookers who aren't in on the joke hypothesising about what is going on and why they are doing this.

Apparently they did another one of these tonight at Liverpool St. Station.

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Microsoft Surface Debut

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 27-Apr-2008 by asqui

Microsoft Surface at AT&TThe Microsoft Surface recently had its commercial debut when AT&T fitted Microsoft Surface units to five concept stores around the country. The Surface lets you browse mobile network coverage on an interactive map, pick up phones and set them down on the Surface to view specifications, browse accessories, or compare with other devices.

Here's a three minute demo of the features:

Here is another video demonstration, detailed article, 30 second AT&T advertisement, and photo gallery.

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Freestyle Uses for the Wiimote

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 24-Apr-2008 by asqui

Check out Johnny Lee's creative uses of the Nintendo Wiimote, on TED:



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Tim Ferriss on Freestyle Public Speaking

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 20-Apr-2008 by asqui

Tim FerrissTim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week (still on my reading list) presents an unusual public-speaker's dilemma:

What happens when you say “laugh at all my jokes and I’ll breakdance for you at the end”—and someone calls you on it?


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Imagining The Tenth Dimension

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 05-Apr-2008 by asqui

Somehow I must have missed this popular science initiative from Rob Bryanton. It's been around since at least 2006, backed by a book, videos, website, blog, video blog, interactive media chat-room, and even cheesy songs written and performed by Rob.

Here's an introductory video that walks through imagining ten dimensions:

This animation illustrates the concepts presented in chapter one of the book "Imagining the Tenth Dimension" by Rob Bryanton.

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Religious Child Abuse

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 29-Mar-2008 by asqui

Shouldn't this be classed as child abuse, and therefore be illegal?

Update: Here's a clarifying article on religion as a form of Child Abuse.

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White and Nerdy

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 28-Mar-2008 by asqui

Weird Al's White & Nerdy music video:

I can't wait to hear this song played out in a nightclub.

If you want to sing along, the lyrics are available here (and elsewhere).

(Discovered via the Freakonomics Blog.)

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