Tagged: Alexis Madrigal

Putting the ‘home’ in Homeland Security

I thought I’d witnessed an impressive milestone in the annals of retail marketing Sunday when I came upon a BestBuy vending machine in Halifax’s Stanfield Airport that dispenses iPads.

Two hours later, in the Icelandair departure lounge at Boston’s Logan Airport, Brookstone trumped BestBuy with its display of personal helicopter drones. For US$299, you can have your own Parrot AR Drone Quadricopter, equipped with two HD video cameras (one facing front and the other pointing earthward), all controlled by an app on your iPhone or iPad.

Steve from the Brookstone store gave Balgovind Pande and me a demo:

[Video link]

Parrot claims battery life sufficient for a 45-minute flight. at a controllable distance of up to three football fields.

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has pondered a future in which everyone has a drone, and the possibly counterintuitive impact on personal privacy.

Hard-pressed parents beget lavish tooth fairies

Visa has released a new iPhone app that uses survey data to help parents calculate the going rate for tooth fairy emoluments, based on a parents’ gender, age, income, location, and educational attainment. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal played with the app for a while and came up with in interesting discovery that doesn’t really surprise me much:

The smaller the amount I put in for household income, the greater the size of the average tooth fairy’s gift. In fact, I was only able to get calculator to output $5 by setting my household income to $20k per year and selecting that my highest level of educational attainment was high school. Grad school degree holders making more than $150,000 per year gave their kids an average of $1 per tooth.

That ole-timey modem sound

Brendan Chilcutt has created the Museum of Endangered Sounds, where you can revisit technological sounds of yesteryear: PacMan, a dot matrix printer, a dial telephone, and a 56K modem connecting over a phone line. It was that last example that caught the fancy of Atlantic Technology columnist Alexis Madrigal:

Of all the noises that my children will not understand, the one that is nearest to my heart is not from a song or a television show or a jingle. It’s the sound of a modem connecting with another modem across the repurposed telephone infrastructure. It was the noise of being part of the beginning of the Internet.

As it connects, an old-fashioned modem (did I really write that?) goes through a sequence of squeaks, buzzes, and wheezes familiar to anyone who used one of these devices. An experienced user could tell from the  sound when a modem had failed to connect, which was often on my oild rural landline.

Madrigal wondered what the modem was doing during the various distinct element in its familiar sound sequence. Finding no good guide on the internet, he posed the question on Twitter, and was rewarded with enough information to produce an elegant annotated graphic:


[Click the image for a larger view]

John Pemberton has gone one step further and produced an animated version of the graphic. Click the orange go-button, then watch, listen, and read as the modem goes through its paces:



“What you’re hearing,” writes Madrigal, “is the way 20th century technology tunneled through a 19th century network.”

Next please: An IBM Selectric typewriter (except I’m afraid Chilcutt is too young to find that in interesting or nostalgic).

A murmuration of starlings

Two women in a canoe on Ireland’s River Shannon stumble across one of nature’s greatest phenomena: a murmuration of starlings.

Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

H/T to The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal who writes:

The starlings coordinated movements do not seem possible, but then there they are doing it. Scientists have been similarly fascinated by starling movement. Those synchronized dips and waves seem to hold secrets about perception and group dynamics. Last year, Italian theoretical physicist Giorgio Parisi took on the challenge of explaining the murmuration. What he found, as ably explained by my old Wired colleague Brandon Keim, is that the math equations that best describe starling movement are borrowed “from the literature of ‘criticality,’ of crystal formation and avalanches — systems poised on the brink, capable of near-instantaneous transformation.” They call it “scale-free correlation,” and it means that no matter how big the flock, “If any one bird turned and changed speed, so would all the others.”

It’s a beautiful phenomenon to behold. And neither biologists nor anyone else can yet explain how starlings seem to process information and act on it so quickly. It’s precisely the lack of lag between the birds’ movements that make the flocks so astonishing. Having imported a theoretical physicist to model the flock movement, perhaps a computer scientist would be the right choice to describe the individual birds’ behavior.

Coolest business card ever

The format of a standard business card is so inherently boring, it cries out for creative embellishment. In place of the usual 2×3-inch card, games inventer Will Wright (SimCity) hands out worthless paper currency stamped with his contact information.

This bill, which Wright recently gave The Atlantic’s technical editor Alexis Madrigal, happens to be from Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. Fittingly, it features electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla. (That’s the blurred-out stamp on the right-hand side.)

Why didn’t we think of that, dear reader?

H/T: Alexis Madrigal

Crowdsourced radiation map of Japan

The Internet has responded collaboratively to the lack of trust in official pronouncements about radiation levels in Japan. First, Shigeru Kobayashi aggregated geiger counter readings from around Japan. Then Haiyan Zhang, self-described interaction designer, technologist and maker of things, produced a Google maps mashup of Kobayashi’s data.


Click this image to view the actual interactive map.

Alexis Madrigal comments:

One of the key problems has been that people aren’t sure whether to trust the official measurements, no matter how many of them there are. Today, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci addressed the issue of lack of trust in institutions in her essay, “If We Built a Safer Nuclear Reactor, How Would We Know?

I think I may have seen the beginnings of a way to build that trust in this crowdsourced map of Geiger counter readings from around Japan. It’s one thing to blindly trust the experts. It’s quite another to doublecheck them with a distributed network of 215 Geiger counters — forcing them to earn that trust.

This is DIY science with purpose.

A most excellent time-wasting tool

That’s what Atlantic tech blogger Alexis Madrigal calls Google’s Books Ngram Viewer. Google has scanned about 10 percent of all the books ever published. Enter any word or phrase into the search box, and the viewer returns a graph of its frequency of appearance in books published over the last two centuries. Note that the searches are case sensitive, and you can compare the relative frequencies of up to four five different words or phrases, separating them by commas in the search box. Say, “Nova Scotia” and “Ontario,” for example:


Try it yourself, and please send me any interesting pairings you come up with.

Madrigal’s blog is always interesting, but today’s entries are exceptionally good. In addition to the Ngram Viewer, there’s a post on the history or weird homemade windmills that sprung up in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley during the last two decades of the 19th century, another on names for the movie projector that were tried and discarded before 1900, and an entry on the cautionary implications of the Stuxet virus for our industrial infrastructure, most especially the electrical grid. (Stuxnet is the worm that targeted a particular type of Siemens control system used to operate centrifuges critical to Iran’s nuclear program. The virus kept itself hidden until they day it instructed the centrifuges to spin so fast they purportedly self-destructed.)

Is it OK to change Mom’s default browser?

Alexis Madrigal, Atlantic’s new tech blogger, poses the question this way:

You hop onto a parent’s computer to check your email or do a little work. But, to your dismay, the only browser available is Internet Explorer and (for whatever reason) you don’t like Internet Explorer. You download Firefox (or Chrome), then install and launch it.

Firefox (or Chrome) then asks whether you want to make it your (Mom’s) default browser. Of course you do! But should you really make this decision for Mom? Yes, says Madrigal, quoting a mashup of Tweeted responses:

“It’s our responsibility to help our parents figure out technology” and “all the powers of the universe implore you to do so.” Besides, “she probably does not know any better” and “you’ll feel better.” Just make sure to “import the bookmarks.” And you might “give a face-to-face lesson,” or say, “I updated your browser to a newer version,” or “take the covert route” and “install an IE skin on it.” Otherwise “be prepared to get a phone call in the next couple of days about ‘what’s wrong with the internet.’ Don’t be dogmatic, though. The “only real moral imperative: update security and scrub malware… good ol’ nonextensible, can’t f— it up too badly IE has a lot going for it for tech-unsavvy moms.”

My late mother never encountered the World Wide Web. It’s my sons’ default browsers I’m tempted to change. But I’m not that stupid.

Note to Joshua and Silas: IE is unbearable; Firefox, Opera, and Safari have gradually morphed into bloatware. Switch to Chrome. I know you tried it before, and weren’t impressed, but try again. It has improved as the others have deteriorated. It’s now blazingly fast.