Cassini’s Final Swoops

After more than a decade, the Cassini Spacecraft is nearing the end of its mission. The final phase will be a fiery plunge into the atmosphere of Jupiter, beaming back as much data as it can before burning up and.or being crushed by the gas giant. The final dive is intended to assure that no trace of Earth accidentally reaches one of the moons, which may have their own life.

This month sees the first of 22 rinplane crossing orbits, deep dives between the rings and the atmosphere. I mean, you go all the way to Jupiter, you want to get as many cool pix as possible, right?

NASA released a neat image, with sentimental tag “Cassini’s Last View of Earth”, a reminder that the spacecraft is far from home and never returning.

Cassini’s Last View of Earth Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The image is especially striking because the glimpse of Earth through the rings is so tiny. Cassini is a long, long way from home.

There will be 22 orbits, each about six days, ending in the final plunge, This week saw the “First Ringplane Crossing” and the “Grand Finale Dive #2” (which would be great names for bands!).

Cassini will perform 22 orbits of Saturn during the Grand Finale.

We wonk get data back for a while, it takes time to beam stuff home.

And think about the skill and precision required to hit that tiny little dot with the downlink!

If all goes as planned there will be 15 more Ringplane crossings, lower and lower, until the last 5 swoop through the atmosphere. This will take all summer, with last call will be September 15.


NASA is a neverending cornucopea of nerdy names for bands.

In addition to “First Ringplane Crossing” and  “Grand Finale Dive #2”, this project also brings:

  • “The Grand Finale Toolkit”
  • “Last View of Earth”
  • “Final – and Fateful – Titan Flyby”

 

Space Saturday

Cats Underground

Most of us have dreamed of deep sixing the endless visual clutter of advertising, and more than one project has taken on the challenge. This idea is part political subversion, part esthetic enhancement, and often demonstration of professional chops by young guns.

My attention was drawn to a successful “campaign” last year in London (thanks for the inspiration Ester Jacobs).

The Citizens Advertising Takeover Service replaced 68 adverts in Clapham Common with pictures of cats.

(More pix here)

This is an improvement over the usual glop we have to look at on public transit (unless you really hate cats).

This was funded through Kickstarter (naturally), the Electron Volt for funding art projects these days. (I asked a creative youngster why she did a Kickstarter for a project that easily could garner funds many ways, and (a) she looked at me like I was from Mars and (b) indicated that it is crucial publicity and credibility for a project to have a successful Kickstarter.)

The gang behind this subversion is Glimpse, “A group of creative people who want to use our skills for good.” Specifically, they “aim to make positive social change feel attractive to millions” by showing ‘glimpses’ of a better world that’s possible. This is very much in the spirit of something like “Design Fiction”, except with real products rather than just mock ups.

The whole thing is marvelously light and jolly, and reasonably well explained. It’s one of the better Kickstarter’s I’ve seen (not that I look at very many KSs).

Are there any long term lessons to learn from this exercise?

It is great to see that it is technically possible to “buy back” our public space, though it is also instructive that a successful Kickstarter with hundreds of supporters was able to do one small platform for a couple of weeks. Scaling this up to the whole world is pretty far out of reach, at least by this methodology.

Second, I had to think about how this model could go off the tracks. For one thing, if a handful of enthusiasts can take over one station, what’s to stop any determined band from doing the same? There are a lot of crazy alt.* out there on the internet, who might be happy to decorate your station with Sad Puppies or other controversial and not the least bit soothing stuff.

Presumably, the authorities will filter such campaigns, just as they o now, with the inevitable political wrangles about just what sort of transgressions are to be allowed.

In other words, nothing really changes.

Except we  now know that you might be able to help crowdfund adverts of your own—at least as long as the pass the standards.

To be clear: I like this project, both the spirit and the implementation. Pretty talk and effective action are a good combination.

But it’s not quite the better world we think we glimpse here.


  1. Glimpse. Citizens Advertising Takeover Service. 2016, http://weglimpse.co/catsnotads/.
  2. C.A.T.S. The Citizens Advertising Takeover Service (CATS) 2016, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1115177097/the-citizens-advertising-takeover-service-cats.
  3. James Gould-Bourn, All Adverts In London’s Underground Station Have Been Replaced With Cat Pictures, in Bored Panda. 2016. http://www.boredpanda.com/cat-ads-underground-subway-metro-london/
  4. James Turner, We Replaced 68 Tube Adverts with Cats, in On Advertisinng. 2016. https://medium.com/on-advertising/why-we-just-replaced-68-tube-adverts-with-cat-pictures-9ed1ae1177d0

 

A Bad Idea Implemented with A Bad Idea

Let’s be clear. I find gambling to be boring and stupid myself, and I don’t admire gambling businesses that are built the weaknesses of people. Casino and other on-site gambling is a bad idea, but at least it gets people out in the world a little bit. Online gambling is a really, really bad idea, enabling people to feed their worst inclinations in the privacy of their own home.

You won’t b surprised that I’m not a big fan of the new initiative by an opaque company called Better Gaming, who are building an Ethereum Slot Machine: a slot machine that uses Ethereum smart contracts.

The innovation here is that this game is running entirely in a smart contract. No servers are required to operate the game, unlike existing online casinos.

Running “entirely in a smart contract” isn’t quite accurate: there is no server, but much of the logic runs on your local device.  However the logic of the gambling machine is implemented with smart contracts, which is the main point.

Readers of this blog know that I have a low opinion of “smart” contracts, Ethereum or otherwise. So, I’m especially excited to see this poorly designed technology used to implement the inherently bad idea of a slot machine. Not.

Obviously, the game itself isn’t innovative. They have gone to great trouble to replicated the behavior of these ubiquitous one-armed bandits. The “innovation” is to eliminate the server, in a fully decentralised and provably fair.” system.

For once, this Distributed App (Dapp) is actually solving a real problem: trusting your online gambling provider not to cheat is, well, a gamble. Gamblers can’t win, but they want to lose honestly.

The game’s logic has to be wholly processed within the smart contracts so that anyone who wants to can see that the game is playing by the rules and can’t cheat

Of course, they are also “solving” another problem, how to run an unregulated gaming operation, “off shore” from everywhere. Cryptocurrency is, if nothing else, a perfect digital “poker chip”, easy to move around, and not tracked by annoying tax agencies or vice squads. This slot machine isn’t taxed or regulated, and all the money goes…who know where it goes?

To give them their due, there are a couple of legitimate technical innovations in this product (at least according to their write up).

First of all, they made the user app asynchronous from the blockthain. It’s extremely important to give instant gratification to the lab rat gamer, and the blockchain has too much latency to always respond instantly. So they worked out protocols to mask the delay, presumably with caching on your local device. This is a significant achievement, and certainly caught Corin Faife’s attention in Coindesk. If this is successful, it may be a model to emulated by every Dapp.

A second technical feature is the random number generation (RNG). As Donald Knuth pointed out all those years ago, “Random numbers should not be generated with a method chosen at random.” [2] This group uses the blockchain with its pseudorandom hash in its random umber generation. I’m not sure what their method is, exactly, but this is a rather clever idea because the hashes are already very solid pseudorandom numbers.

 

Overall, this is yet another example of how bad ideas sometimes inspire brilliant software. This sounds like it will be a very solid implementation of a bad idea (a digital slot machines), and it will make excellent use of a bad idea (Distributed apps using Ethereum contracts), with some creative technical wrinkles. Sigh.

One sign that this is technology whose time has come: the Better Gaming  folks are already making legally licensed online games, and presumably making money.  Yet they believe it is worth building with this new tech, even though they are well aware that the powers-that-be will not easily approve it.  They should get credit for a gutsy technical gamble, and it shows just how promising this technology is.

it’s so new that we don’t expect regulators to fully grasp nor appreciate the implications overnight and there will need to be lots of discussion and negotiation before existing gaming jurisdictions license such activity.”


  1. Corin Faife, Watch This Ethereum Slot Machine Make Payouts in Real Time. Coindesk.April 21 2017, http://www.coindesk.com/watch-ethereum-slot-machine-video/
  2. Donald Knuth, The Art of Computer Programming: Vol. 2: Seminumerical algorithms (3 ed.). Boston, Addison-Wesley, 1997.
  3. Jez San, 1st Demonstration of real-time casino games built with Ethereum Smart Contracts, in Medium. 2017. https://medium.com/@aerobatic/1st-demonstration-of-real-time-casino-games-built-with-ethereum-smart-contracts-165ba72be02e

 

Cryptcurrency Thursday

Cool Drone Magic form Marco Tempest

We techies, we all want to build stuff that is magical. Most of us have little clue what that entails. This is why I have enjoyed working with musicians and other performing artists (e.g., [1]), who understand wonder and magic, not to mention human perception and movement.

These days, there is a vast and growing interest in human-robot interaction, self-driving cars, drones, and so on.  Much of this work is not magical in the least. Usually, this is because brilliant engineers are not really brilliant imagineers.

Fortunately, drones are now cheap and easy enough that they are getting in the hands of cops, artists and teenagers—and thus are entering out culture.  In my view, one glorious circus performance is more significant that a thousand delivery drone concepts.

Of course, if the goal is to create magic, then we really should collaborate with, well, magicians.

Along this line, illusionist Marco Tempest has released some cool videos, demonstrating amazing multi-UAV behavior, apparently under gesture and/or voice command. Actually, I’m not really sure how it all works—the very definition of magic, no?

The video is awesome, but just as interesting, he articulates the principles that make these little buzzing light bulbs seem alive, intelligent, and communicating with him.

The algorithms that enable the UAVs to fly in close, coordinated swarm that reacts to him are:

“mathematics that can be mistaken for intelligence, and intelligence for personality.”

What a lovely phrase!

If the whole idea of social robots is to make people perceive the artificial intelligence as a friendly agent, then the game is really about creating anthropomorphism, which is

an illusion created by technology and embroidered by our imagination to become an intelligent flying robot, a machine that appears to be alive.

From this point of view, all that rigamarole about big data and vast computational power is kind of off-target. The target is to create the illusion of intelligence—in the mind of the human observer.

This illusion works through the same principle that most magic tricks work:

Our imagination is more powerful than our reasoning and it’s easy to attribute personality to machines.

Another marvelous phrase!

Really cool! When can I buy a suitcase full of these intelligent drones??

By the way, this is one of the most compelling “gestural” interfaces I’ve seen.  No phone.  No goggles.  No joy stick.  Just body and hands. So, so, slick!

By the way, I would add one more little trick that would deepen the illusion:  the drones should have individual names, and should respond to their name.  I would predict that once we have applied a personal name to each flyer, we will soon perceive individual differences among them, even if they are actually programmed identically.  (Though, it would be cool to have each be programmed different.)


  1. Mary Pietrowicz, Robert E. McGrath, Guy Garnett, and John Toenjes, Multimodal Gestural Interaction in Performance, in Whole Body Interfaces Workshop at CHI 2010. 2010: Atlanta. http://lister.cms.livjm.ac.uk/homepage/staff/cmsdengl/WBI2010/documents2010/Pietrowicz.pdf
  2. Marco Tempest. Work. 2017, http://marcotempest.com/en/work/.

 

What is coworking? Is It Really Part Of Your 21st Century Library?

A recent article by Cat Johnson caught my eye, describing “5 Coworking Spaces and Business Incubators in Libraries That Support Local Workers”. This piece joins earlier articles with the same topic by Hamilton and Lussier.

Everyone agrees that a public library might host a coworking space. These articles put forward the case, citing examples. However, a close reading shows that there aren’t really very many examples—the same ones are mentioned by everyone. I know of roughly 15 of the thousands of public libraries in the world that have opened (or at least proposed) a coworking space.

The case itself is simple. Public libraries are about serving their communities, and in the twenty first century, this means many things besides books. Johnson states the case for coworking in a public library succinctly:

As the needs of communities change, libraries around the world are innovating to meet those changing needs. For a growing number of libraries, that means supporting the workforce by providing coworking spaces, internet access, business incubators, and networking opportunities.

“Coworking spaces and business incubators in libraries serve freelancers, students, entrepreneurs, remote workers, job seekers, independent professionals, and more.

The examples are mainly form the US and the Netherlands.  Here is a list of all the coworking spaces in libraries that I have found:

Akron-Summit County Public Library. Microbusiness Center
Brooklyn Public LIbrary. The Shelby White and Leon Levy Information Commons.
DC Public LIbrary. The Dream Lab.
** John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Co-working at the Library
Maricopa County Library District. The InnovationHub
Mesa Public LIbrary. ThinkSpot
Phoenix Public Library. About hive.
Richland Library. Reserve a Coworking Desk
*** Seats2Meet. Seats2Meet – Connecting and empowering you to excel.
Spokane Public Library. Level Up Coworking Space.

* This branch is closed for renovation. It is uncertain whether coworking is still available.
** This project was funded for six months in 2015. It does not appear to have continued.
***   Seats2Meet reports sites are four libraries in Netherlands, and there is a site at the Rochester NY library. No information is avialble about the individual sites.

 

How is this new or different for libraries?

There are some basic semantic questions about what “coworking” actually means.

Public libraries have long offered a workplace, meeting rooms, and digital infrastructure. Libraries are open to the public, provide service at low cost, and rooted in local communities. What does it mean for a library to host a “coworking space”—if the distinction even matters? What do these cases of “coworking” offer that is different from what libraries already have done for years?

Several of the projects described are very similar to services already offered by the library. Indeed, the Brooklyn library is part of its “Information Commons”, which most libraries already have. The DC project was similar to this. .As far as I can see, the difference between an “information commons” and a “coworking space” is desk reservations. And many libraries already have carrels and meeting rooms that can be reserved.

Of Johnson’s five cases, Seats2Meet is a well known coworking chain, with its own unique approach (it is a “Serendipity Machine” [5]). The canonical description of Seats2Meet involves a large (noisy) commons, meeting rooms, and a free buffet lunch [5], This would be a considerable departure from conventional library space! From the article and general information, it isn’t clear exactly how it is integrated with the library.

These spaces offer infrastructure and training in business development, similar to what is offered many coworking spaces. The Akron space is labeled a “Microbusiness Center”, and the Spokane space is also an incubator. There is a cluster of facilities in Arizona, evidently the product of business development initiatives and Arizona State University.

These spaces resemble the business incubators as much as a community of freelancers. There are many coworking spaces with similar goals and programs. On the other hand, the training programs themselves are probably not that different from programs found at other libraries, even if they do not enjoy dedicated space in the library.

How Coworking Works In A Library

There seems to be a number of differences between these coworking spaces compared to conventional coworking.

One prominent asset is that these coworking spaces boast of the deep and broad information resources available from the library. A generic coworking space certainly does not have reference librarians and large collections of information. In house.

On the other hand, these workspaces must cohabit with the rules and customs of the library they inhabit. Some of the spaces advertise “collaboration”, but none of them encourage playing loud music, playing video games in bare feet, or sleeping at your desk. Generally, the coworking area is open only while the library is open—definitely not the place for an all night coding blitz.

Worse, libraries are generally still “shh!” zones. The Richland coworking rules include: “Please do not disturb your coworkers. The Coworking Center is not to be used for interviews, telemarketing, meetings or other loud or disruptive activities.” This is definitely not the classic coworking scene!

Is there a community? What kind of community.

Libraries are rooted in the “come one, come all” spirit of a public service. Coworking is for “members”, and works best when the workers actively participate in the community in the space. A coworking space is a clubhouse for a relatively small number of people, a library is for everyone equally.

These are both “communities”, but different sorts and scales.

Along these lines, it is interesting to observe that libraries have a tradition of individualism. Each individual patron uses the library for his or her own purposes. Many libraries host events, programs, and groups such as book clubs, but most users of the library most of the time are not there to be part of a group, or to spontaneously meet people.

In contrast, coworking is all about community, it is communal. Workers spend time in the coworking space, and expect to commit time to the other workers present. While coworkers have their own independent careers and tasks, they cowork in order to have friends, help and be helped, to collaborate, and to make connections.

This difference is a big reason for the “no talking” versus “talk as much as possible” rules.

Is coworking a good fit for a library?

As I have said, libraries already have infrastructure and missions that a simpatico with coworking. On the other hand, every coffee shop and restaurant has similar infrastructure, as do many residences.

There are reasons why coworking isn’t a good fit for a public library. At it’s best a coworking space is a kind of club house, and coworkers are committed members. Coworking is deeply social, “a respite from our isolation” as Klaas put it [3]. Coworking is also about collaboration and serendipity [5]. These are not traditional missions of a library, and fundamentally clash with the “open to all” philosophy.

Does this mean that libraries can not or should not host coworking? Not necessarily. However, much of what libraries call “coworking” is really just renting out infrastructure, which is neither particularly valuable to the community, nor particularly good use of library resources.

In particular, the library should consider its competition and what the goals are. If there are insufficient workspaces (and incubators) in the community, then by all means a public library can step into the gap. But if there are coworking and other similar service available, then why should the library get into the game, too?

In some cases, the library is following its traditional mission of serving the underserved, offering low cost or free workspace to those who might not have access. This might be very valuable, but unless this is actually a community of workers, it isn’t really coworking, in my opinion.

Libraries are a great thing, and coworking is great for some workers.  But coworking isn’t necessarily a great idea for a public library, nor is a library necesasrily a great place for a coworking space.


  1. Anita Hamilton, The Public Library Wants To Be Your Office.2014, http://www.fastcompany.com/3034143/the-public-library-wants-to-be-your-office
  2. Cat Johnson,  5 Coworking Spaces and Business Incubators in Libraries That Support Local Workers. Sharable.April 3 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/5-coworking-spaces-and-business-incubators-in-libraries-that-support-local-workers
  3. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  4. Kathy Schwartz  Lussier, Your Library Is The Perfect Coworking Space. workfrom.February 28 2017, https://workfrom.co/magazine/story/library-perfect-coworking-space
  5. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, 2012.

 

What is Coworking?

Please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming  in 2017.

Particle Accelerator on a Chip

This month, Dexter Johnson interviewed Joel England of the Advanced Accelerator Research Department at SLAC about progress in “Particle-Accelerator-on-a-Chip” Technology.

File this under “Whoa!”

Scaling down the functions of a particle accelerator form a building to a chip!

Aerial view of SLAC accelerator. Not really a fair comparison, but you get the idea-scaling down a lot.

Part of the trick is to substitute lasers for microwaves as the energy source. The laser is 10,000 times shorter wavelength, so the magnetron cavity and other parts can be correspondingly smaller.

At this stage the beam achieves about 30-50 MEV.  They want to boost this to 1M MEV or more for practical uses such as medical treatments.

Obviously, a hand held chip for $1000 is a totally different animal from a room size multimillion dollar behemoth (let alone a kilometer-scale, billion dollar atom smasher) . Lots of uses that are exotic today will become routine, and new uses will come on line.

The article mentions medical applications, such as treatment for cancer.  Cheap and ubiquitous radiation treatment.

What other uses might be common?

Obviously, we all think about creating photon guns, though I doubt that this particular technology is useful for that, for many reasons.  On the other hand, it might be a very effective weapon for disabling electronics without harming humans (a phone/camera/drone zapper?)

Cheap particle accelerators might well be useful for various kinds of industrial and chemical processes, as well as non-destructive testing, including, perhaps dating of archaeological samples. For these applications, much depends on what kinds of particles can be produced and what energies are possible.

If this can be made to work, it opens up new opportunities. For example, it will clearly be possible to create arrays of accelerators, in many geometries. Even better, the geometry will be flexible and tunable.  Who knows what might be done if you have 1,000 beams, potentially from 360 degrees?

Small accelerators will also be quite portable. They will surely be mounted on vehicles an robots, to do chemical analysis or processing in hard to reach places.  Will they be deployed as wearable devices?  They might be part of a wearable medical monitor, taking chemical assays.


  1. Test Infrastructure and Accelerator Research Area. Accelerators for Society project. 2017, http://www.accelerators-for-society.org/.
  2. Dexter Johnson, Nanofabrication Enables “Particle-Accelerator-on-a-Chip” Technology, in IEEE Spectrum – Nanclast. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/nanoclast/semiconductors/devices/nanofabrication-enables-acceleratoronachip-technology
  3. E. A. Peralta , K. Soong, R. J. England, E. R. Colby, Z. Wu, B. Montazeri, C. McGuinness, J. McNeur, K. J. Leedle, D. Walz, E. B. Sozer, B. Cowan, B. Schwartz, G. Travish, and R. L. Byer, Demonstration of electron acceleration in a laser-driven dielectric microstructure. Nature, 503 (7474):91-94, 11/07/print 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature12664

Book Review: “Earthly Remains” by Donna Leon

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

Yet another installment in Sonna Leon’s the long running and beloved Venetian stories.

Like the author and many of her readers, Commissario Brunetti is aging. The thoughtful and introspective detective grows ever more thoughtful and introspective as time goes by. (If you are hoping for swashbuckling cinematic excitement, these stories are not the droids you are looking for! :-))

As Brunetti faces his own eventual retirement and mortality, he acutely observes other older people. He also worries about the past and the future, and what will be left for the children.

In the last decade, Brunetti has watched his beloved city of Venice become overrun with tourists, touristy junk, mega cruise ships, and all the other horrors. He has also had to watch the slow degradation of the fragile coastal environment under the pressure of industry and human activities.

This story involves the death of an old man Brunetti is staying with, which may or may not have been an accident. The Commissario cannot let it lie without finding the truth of the matter. This requires uncovering the old man’s life, including dramatic events in his past, grief follow the death of his wife, and the slow death of the Laguna, including his colonies of bees.

(It’s not all about old people—Brunetti’s younger colleagues are fascinating as always.)

It’s all a rather sad story, beautifully told in Leon’s understated style.

As I said in an earlier review,

Reading Lean makes me want to live a little more “Venetian”. Not indolent luxury, but gently caring for my home town and the people who live here.

And, of course, “I wish I could write this well!


  1. Donna Leon, Earthly Remains, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

A personal blog.

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