The Longest Now

On Graphene
Sunday December 26th 2010, 12:16 am
Filed under: chain-gang,Glory, glory, glory,Too weird for fiction

Graphene is one of the most remarkable substances in the world. Physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for their work to manufacture single-layer sheets of it only six years after their first success.

Now it is entering mass production, and being considered for the sort of applications that currently rely on nanotubes. It might also be suitable for very different macro-scale tasks, as sheets of graphene can theoretically be arbitrarily broad (while just one atom thick), once a suitable production process is worked out.

In practice, it is still hard to produce monolayer sheets of graphene, but we are making thinner and thinner ‘platelets’ by exfoliating them from larger chunks. Many current applications depend on the bulk surface area available for interaction with the environment, and platelets are often marketed in terms of their surface area per unit weight (in m^2/g).

The properties of commercially produced graphene are 1-2 magnitudes less than the extreme values measurable with pure monolayer sheets. So on top of the practical economic applications today, there is a decade of Moore-like improvement to look forward to. Costs of production vary according to purity: low-grade graphene (platelets 3-10 layers thick and a few dozen microns wide) are available for under $300/kg, while higher-quality graphene (1-3 layers thick, hundreds of microns wide) can range from $10/gram to $100/gram, and only in small quantities.

Finally, my favorite factoid about graphene (out of MANY): you can use a sheet of it to directly measure the fine structure constant: each layer absorbs πα (that’s pi times the fine structure constant) of light that passes through it!

olpcMAP Sprint: put XO communities on the map!
Friday December 24th 2010, 11:10 pm
Filed under: chain-gang,international,metrics

olpcMAP is ready for launch, and we’re hosting a map sprint at OLPC headquarters this week. Come help us design the next iteration of the map, and add your favorite projects to it. And encourage everyone you know who works on an OLPC project to add themselves as well — this map is designed to be a reusable repository for map data, so anything stored here will be easy to query and use in other map contexts in the future.

If you can only join for only part of the mapping sprint, try to come on Tuesday Dec 28, when you will get to see a special screening of Audobon Dougherty’s study of the impact of Internet access in rural Peru.

How to become a skilled language-crafting society
Friday December 24th 2010, 10:59 pm
Filed under: Blogroll,Glory, glory, glory,international,metrics

We like to think of humans as defined by being tool-users and language-users. But while we respect people who create new tools and languages, we don’t prioritize such work, nor have we developed fields that study how to become more efficient at developing, measuring, and improving theoretical tool and language designs and implementations.

There is the idea, in each case, that undirected evolution over time will sort out the best new tools or words or languages, organically producing [successful, widespread] inventions and [popular, widespread] terms that address all significant opportunities for us to become more effective [as tool- or language-users].

I’m not sure where this idea comes from. Three people whose thinking I admire have independently offered a version of this idea as a rationalization for why we the current level of interest in tool- and language-crafting is ‘optimal‘ or ‘sensible’. I think there are quick ways to quantify the extent to which this is not the case.

(As an example of this idea of default optimality: my clever linguist friend last night explained that there is a popular assumption in linguistics that “all living languages are equally good at transmitting all kinds of ideas,” modulo new vocabulary.)

As an example of quantifying what is missing: mathematics & physics in the last century have very actively started creating new collections of axioms, and trying to use them as a language to define what is known about math & the world. If one frames this as language-formation, it was consciously designing a better, more elegant, more expressive language — and designing one that is capable of explaining in simply terms new complex things that we observe or have discovered.

Stephen Wolfram makes the case that there are an enumerable number of different systems of logic (on the order of 50,000), and that we chose one fo these long ago which we’ve built up into moder mathematics and logic, and use to define which srots of theorems or proofs seem ‘elegant’ and ‘simple’ and can be derived quickly from its axioms. He suggests that choosing other systems of logic (and repeating the process of building out an infrastcuture of theorems and propositions) will provide fertile ground for further advances in understanding the universe. What I like most about this argument is the attempt to identify opportunities for understanding which we cannot yet approach conceptually, for lack of language to take us there.

One could do the same by moving backwards in the history of mathematics, trying to describe problems of broad modern interest without concepts and terms developed in the last 200 years. But in that case one could still imagine a single broad highway of ‘increasing sophistication’ along which we progress, adding more nuanced language as we go — when in contrast I feel that here, as in most walks of life, we have made a choice at some point to limit the building blocks of subtle communication, and are filling in the space of ideas that follows naturally from those early assumptions, but are no longer able to see what other building blocks would make possible. In particular, we have no way of estimating gaps in our understanding, or how to reach them.

So the question is: how do we reframe our development of languages outside of math so that we can start improving them consciously, measuring their effectiveness and acknowledging successes that we have discovered in the past through random-walk exploration? How do we merge the valuable properties of different spoken languages; create new auditory or visual languages; develop better sublanguages for effective communication in negotiation, love, large-scale collaboration? How can we use modern tools (wordnik, ngrams) to take control of the language-creation process, identifying trends and demands, and helping visualize new discoveries across all languages?


A cheer for the Smile Train
Friday December 24th 2010, 10:10 am
Filed under: chain-gang,international,metrics,popular demand

Simple, passionate, efficient: a solid global implementation of one of the cheapest irrevocable life-improvements (fixing cleft palates) modern medicine can offer. Smile Train is a remarkable charity.

They are fascinating on a few levels, from the clarity of their work and tactical training local doctors, their selection of spokespeople and Oscar-winning short documentary, to the controversy of their fundraising tactics, and the lingering drama of an early fork. If you haven’t heard of them before it’s worth taking ten minutes to find out what they do.

Never be made fun of again
Thursday December 23rd 2010, 7:16 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,wikipedia

(wondermark, wonder #675)

Wikipedia turns 10 next month!
Thursday December 23rd 2010, 12:15 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,Blogroll,international,Uncategorized,wikipedia

Wikipedia turns 10 on January 15. Please honor the anniversary by making ten edits on your favorite project, including making your first account if you have to! (yes, anonymous edits count, but they’re just less fun!

The Boston Wikipedians and Code X crew will be celebrating with a (short, concentrated!) party at MIT in Cambridge that Saturday night, and a longer evening of events and video screenings about Wikipedia the following week. There will also be dozens of other events around the world. As events around the world come together, I’ll post links and notes about them here.

Ivay Martinez just published a schedule for a Mexico City WikiX event. Congrats to Wikimedia México for this excellent-looking lineup!

Motolinía 33, Centro Histórico
Ciudad de México, Mexico

Wikipedia cumple 10 años y Wikimedia México te invita a celebrarlo!

18:00 Proyección del documental Truth in Numbers: The Wikipedia Story
19:20 Bienvenida a los invitados. Inauguración del evento.
19:30 Proyección de un video introductorio sobre Wikipedia 10 y Wikimedia Mexico
19:35 Charla de Miguel A. Solís (Fundación Software Libre FSF México)
20:00 Charla de Pablo Nieto Mercado y Hugo Chávez Carvajal, de WikiDF / CONACULTA.
20:30 Charla de Cecilia Estrada, historiadora de la UNAM.
21:00 Charla de Mtro. Jorge Hidalgo Toledo, profesor e investigador de la Universidad Anáhuac.
21:30 Charla de Iván Martínez (Wikimedia Mexico).
21:30 Proyección de felicitaciones y saludos de wikipedistas del mundo y de América Latina.
21:35 Mensaje principal de Wikipedia 10
21:40 ¡Fiesta! FURY (DJ) y POlo (VJ).

Why to eat at home
Thursday December 16th 2010, 11:38 pm
Filed under: indescribable,international

Yet another Happy Meal rotting experiment, with a french fry workout.

Tonic for the soul
Tuesday December 14th 2010, 5:47 am
Filed under: %a la mod,indescribable,popular demand

It took me a while to realize what I was reading: an entire zine site – from featured stories to news blurbs and gossip sections to photosets and interviews – about celebrity charitable work. How, when, and why people give, third-party events recognizing different sorts of giving. Glossy coverage of civic events supporting the needy or arranging barn-raising and disaster recovery in towns around the world. Site polls about how visitors plan to help a homeless person in their neighborhood that day.

Somehow they pull this off in a sincere and heart-warming way. What say you?

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