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Using a crane and concrete blocks to store energy for later retrieval

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

A Swiss company has designed a system for storing energy in concrete blocks. The blocks are lifted by a crane when surplus energy is available (say, when the Sun is shining or the wind blowing) and then, when energy is needed later, allowed to fall, turning turbines to generate electricity.

The innovation in Energy Vault’s plant is not the hardware. Cranes and motors have been around for decades, and companies like ABB and Siemens have optimized them for maximum efficiency. The round-trip efficiency of the system, which is the amount of energy recovered for every unit of energy used to lift the blocks, is about 85% — comparable to lithium-ion batteries which offer up to 90%.

Pedretti’s main work as the chief technology officer has been figuring out how to design software to automate contextually relevant operations, like hooking and unhooking concrete blocks, and to counteract pendulum-like movements during the lifting and lowering of those blocks.

The storage of energy in this way isn’t new…the ARES project uses hills and heavy trains to accomplish the same thing.

It’s a wonderfully simple idea, a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem, with some help from the abundant natural resource that is gravity. When the local utility’s got surplus electricity, it powers up the electric motors that drag 9,600 tons of rock- and concrete-filled railcars up a 2,000-foot hill. When it’s got a deficit, 9,600 tons of railcar rumble down, and those motors generate electricity via regenerative braking — the same way your Prius does. Effectively, all the energy used to move the train up the hill is stored, and recouped when it comes back down.

There’s something really interesting about big kinetic machines operating as though they were computers, autonomous black boxes where data flows in and out that can operate anywhere with a bit of flat ground.

A paean to grocery shopping in the morning, before the rest of the world gets going

Photos of abandoned buildings and structures in Russia

PepsiCo to buy SodaStream for $3.2 billion. (Does this mean I can make Pepsi at home soon??!)

A virtual tour of the completely abandoned college campuses of Second Life

From Existential Comics, a brief history of metaphysics

"Here's what it looks like when you write a book as if it's a TV show."

23 previously unavailable Prince albums are now available on streaming services

What happens to cities when temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 F)? It’s starting to happen, all over the world

All life on earth in one chart, sorted by weight. (Guess what: we’re mostly plants.)

The trailer for Alfonso Cuarón’s first film since 2013’s Gravity, the black-and-white Roma, set in 1970s Mexico City

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Barack Obama’s end-of-summer reading list for 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

Earlier this year, before a trip to Africa, President Obama shared a recommended reading list for this summer heavy on African authors.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From one of the world’s great contemporary writers comes the story of two Nigerians making their way in the U.S. and the UK, raising universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for identity and a home.

With the end of summer approaching (**heavy sobbing**), Obama posted a list of books he’s personally been reading over the past few months.

Tara Westover’s Educated is a remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind.

Set after WWII, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is a meditation on the lingering effects of war on family.

With the recent passing of V.S. Naipaul, I reread A House for Mr Biswas, the Nobel Prize winner’s first great novel about growing up in Trinidad and the challenge of post-colonial identity.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling, an outstanding international public health expert, is a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases.

Relax and watch billions of particles dance and change colors

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

Volumes is a 4K Full CG art film by Maxim Zhestkov exploring the juxtaposition of emotions with the laws of nature. Billions of colourful particles dance, play and communicate with each other in an eternal hypnotic ballet governed by the invisible wind of fate.

This looks fantastic at fullscreen resolution on my iMac. A nice little break in a hectic day. (via colossal)

The 23 best films of the 2000s

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday proposes a list of movies made in the 2000s that should be added to the canon of the best films ever made. Many of my favorites are on there — The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fog of War, Spirited Away, There Will Be Blood, Children of Men.

Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of the P.D. James novel evinced the perfect balance of technical prowess, propulsive storytelling, complex character development and timeliness when it was released in 2006. But its depiction of a dystopian near-future — what we ruefully now call the present — has proved to be not just visionary but prophetic. Its predictive value aside, it stands as a flawless movie — a masterwork of cinematic values at their purest, with each frame delivering emotion and information in equally compelling measure.

Dunkirk, from just last year, is a bold inclusion…I love that movie but it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up. You can compare this list with two older lists: Dissolve’s and BBC Culture’s.

What Homer Simpson would look like in real life

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

Real Homer Simpson

Welp, I want to unsee that. 3D rendering courtesy of Miguel Vasquez, who did the same thing for SpongeBob awhile back.

Real Spongebob

(via @roeeb)

Watching an art conservator restore a damaged painting

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

There’s something so relaxing about watching art conservator Julian Baumgartner restore this damaged painting, a self-portrait by Italian painter Emma Gaggiotti Richards. I love how he paints tiny cracks in the damaged areas to match those in the rest of the painting.

There are many more videos and photos of Baumgartner’s restoration process on Instagram and YouTube. (via the kid should see this)

The carrot is not important. Chasing it is.

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

Arbitrary Stupid Goal

I finally picked up Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal the other day. This is how it begins (emphasis mine):

The imaginary horizontal lines that circle the earth make sense. Our equator is 0°, the North and South Poles are 90°. Latitude’s order is airtight with clear and elegant motives. The earth has a top and a bottom. Longitude is another story. There isn’t a left and right to earth. Any line could have been called 0°. But Greenwich got first dibs on the prime meridian and as a result the world set clocks and ships by a British resort town that lies outside London.

It was an arbitrary choice that became the basis for precision. My father knew a family named Wolfawitz who wanted to go on vacation but didn’t know where.

It hit them. Take a two-week road trip driving to as many towns, parks, and counties as they could that contained their last name: Wolfpoint, Wolfville, Wolf Lake, etc.

They read up and found things to do on the way to these other Wolf spots: a hotel in a railroad car, an Alpine slide, a pretzel factory, etc.

The Wolfawitzes ended up seeing more than they planned. Lots of unexpected things popped up along the route.

When they came back from vacation, they felt really good. It was easily the best vacation of their lives, and they wondered why.

My father says it was because the Wolfawitzes stopped trying to accomplish anything. They just put a carrot in front of them and decided the carrot wasn’t that important but chasing it was.

The story of the Wolfawitzes’ vacation was told hundreds of times to hundreds of customers in the small restaurant that my mom and dad ran in Greenwich Village. Each time it was told, my dad would conclude that the vacation changed the Wolfawitzes’ whole life, and this was how they were going to live from now on — chasing a very, very small carrot.

The restaurant was Shopsin’s, no longer in Greenwich Village, and after a start like that, I read the next 80 pages without stopping. Really wish I’d heeded much advice to pick this up sooner.

See also “I’ve never had a goal”.

Detroit’s own Queen: Aretha Franklin at history’s crossroads

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

Detroit Free Press - Aretha Franklin.jpg

There are many very fine obituaries and appreciations of Aretha Franklin, who passed away this week at 76. I have two favorites.

The first is a whip-crack of an essay by the New York Times’s Wesley Morris that, better than most, taps into Franklin’s own musical energies.

Ms. Franklin’s respect lasts for two minutes and 28 seconds. That’s all — basically a round of boxing. Nothing that’s over so soon should give you that much strength. But that was Aretha Franklin: a quick trip to the emotional gym. Obviously, she was far more than that. We’re never going to have an artist with a career as long, absurdly bountiful, nourishing and constantly surprising as hers. We’re unlikely to see another superstar as abundantly steeped in real self-confidence — at so many different stages of life, in as many musical genres….

The song owned the summer of 1967. It arrived amid what must have seemed like never-ending turmoil — race riots, political assassinations, the Vietnam draft. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his championship title for refusing to serve in the war. So amid all this upheaval comes a singer from Detroit who’d been around most of the decade doing solid gospel R&B work. But there was something about this black woman’s asserting herself that seemed like a call to national arms. It wasn’t a polite song. It was hard. It was deliberate. It was sure.

The second essay, for NPR by dream hampton, “Black People Will Be Free’: How Aretha Lived The Promise Of Detroit,” is more slowly wound, and less about the music than the time and place that produced Franklin and in which she flourished. It bleeds like a wound, a wound the size of a city, where the Industrial Revolution met the Great Migration and became the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s impossible to talk about Aretha without talking about her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church. Born to Mississippi sharecroppers, Franklin began preaching and soul singing as a teenager. Just after World War II, he, like so many black Southerners who were fleeing racial terror and looking for work, found himself in Detroit. Mayor Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, called him a “preacher’s preacher.” And when Franklin died from gunshot wounds after being robbed in his home in 1979, Mayor Young said his “leadership of the historic freedom march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by his side in June of 1963 — and involving some 125,000 people — provided the prototype for Dr. King’s successful march in Washington later that summer.”

It is important to understand the tradition of black liberation theology, a term coined by James H. Cone, that sought to use scripture to center black self-determination. In Detroit, pastors like C.L. Franklin and Albert Cleage of the Shrine of the Black Madonna used black liberation theology to help a growing black city to imagine itself powerful. They used their churches to launch the campaign of Detroit’s black political class, including Coleman Young. At the same time, Rev. Franklin’s church remained a touch point for even more radical organizing. He opened New Bethel to black auto workers who were waging a class struggle within a racist United Automobile Workers union. He gave shelter to Black Panthers who were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against them. Later leaders of the fractured Black Power movement like the late Jackson, Miss. mayor (and Detroit native) Chokwe Lumumba gathered at New Bethel to form the Republic of New Afrika.

A new sound rooted in older sounds; a new politics rooted in older politics; a new, triumphant individualism rooted in the liberation of entire communities. In all these things, Aretha stood at the crossroads of history. Maybe no one else could have done it.

Battery death is the new horror film staple

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

Daniel_Kaluuya_And_Microsoft_Lumia_Phone___Get_Out_2017_3.jpg

I’ve been enjoying The Verge’s series of posts about batteries, not least because it’s not just about so-called “hard” tech, but also how changing technologies change our culture, our social interactions, our range of possibilities. A good example is Tasha Robinson’s essay on how the dead or dying mobile phone battery has become a staple of contemporary horror films — not so much a cliché (although it sometimes veers into that) but a new condition of the genre.

[In the past,] it was possible for a horror movie to isolate its victims by taking them slightly outside the warm glow of civilization. Classics like 1960’s Psycho, 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or 1980’s The Shining dropped the protagonists at remote houses. With no access to landlines, the characters in those movies were so removed from help or contact with the outside world, they might as well have been stranded on the Moon. Even as of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, it was plausible that a group of tech-savvy young people would venture into the woods without cellphones or a GPS tracker, and have no way to alert anyone else when their situation took a bad turn. But with upward of 75 percent of Americans owning smartphones, and upward of 95 percent owning cellphones of some kind, modern horror films have to work harder to keep their characters from summoning the police the second a maniac starts waving a chainsaw in their direction.

These days, a dead phone doesn’t just cut users off from emergency services; it also cuts them off from the conversation, the daily flow of online life that so many of us use as our primary form of contact with the outside world. In that sense, the need to kill a victim’s battery before killing the actual victim is becoming less of a predictable cliché, and more of a way of building the stakes and establishing sympathies. Horror movie audiences may find it hard to believe in Cloverfield’s group of friends fleeing a Godzilla-sized monster through the streets of New York, but they can certainly believe in a guy coming away from a party with a drained phone battery and obsessing over the need to make one last phone call before the night’s over.

Robinson talks about how this trope taps into real-world anxieties about being unable to communicate or connect with other people, whiling away necessary power with frivolous uses, and technology letting us down in key moments, but she also gestures towards something else; a peculiar sort of wish-fulfillment. She imagines a high-tech horror film in which unplugging becomes a form of escape. But we’re already longing for a retreat from our devices, notifications, internet drama, and everything that comes with it. Isn’t part of the uncanny quality of the battery death trope that it’s giving us what we want, just in a distorted form?

Solving the spaghetti problem

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

If you’ve ever tried to snap dried pasta in half, you know that it’s hard to get just two even pieces; what you usually get instead is macaroni shrapnel everywhere. It turns out this is due to fundamental physical forces of the universe when applied to a straight rod. The initial break creates a snap-back effect that creates additional fractures.

crack-control-1.gif

Apparently, this used to drive Richard Feynman nuts. Here’s an excerpt from No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, where computer scientist Danny Hills describes Feynman’s obsession:

Once we were making spaghetti, which was our favorite thing to eat together. Nobody else seemed to like it. Anyway, if you get a spaghetti stick and you break it, it turns out that instead of breaking it in half, it will almost always break into three pieces. Why is this true — why does it break into three pieces? We spent the next two hours coming up with crazy theories. We thought up experiments, like breaking it underwater because we thought that might dampen the sound, the vibrations. Well, we ended up at the end of a couple of hours with broken spaghetti all over the kitchen and no real good theory about why spaghetti breaks in three. A lot of fun, but I could have blackmailed him with some of his spaghetti theories, which turned out to be dead wrong!

It turns out that controlling the vibrations does have something to do with controlling the breakage, although putting the rod underwater won’t help. Two young physicists, Ronald Heisser and Vishal Patil, found that the key to breaking spaghetti rods into two pieces is to give them a good twist:

If a 10-inch-long spaghetti stick is first twisted by about 270 degrees and then bent, it will snap in two, mainly due to two effects. The snap-back, in which the stick will spring back in the opposite direction from which it was bent, is weakened in the presence of twist. And, the twist-back, where the stick will essentially unwind to its original straightened configuration, releases energy from the rod, preventing additional fractures.

“Once it breaks, you still have a snap-back because the rod wants to be straight,” Dunkel explains. “But it also doesn’t want to be twisted.”

Just as the snap-back will create a bending wave, in which the stick will wobble back and forth, the unwinding generates a “twist wave,” where the stick essentially corkscrews back and forth until it comes to rest. The twist wave travels faster than the bending wave, dissipating energy so that additional critical stress accumulations, which might cause subsequent fractures, do not occur.

“That’s why you never get this second break when you twist hard enough,” Dunkel says.

crack-control-2.gif

It’s not exactly practical to twist spaghetti 270 degrees before you break it in half, just to end up with a shorter noodle. And linguini, fettucine, etc., have a different physics altogether, because they deviate more strongly from the cylindrical rod shape of spaghetti. But it’s cool to have one of these everyday physics problems apparently solved through a relatively simple trick.

Between Sound and Silence, how technology is transforming the lives of those with hearing loss

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2018

Irene Taylor Brodsky directed this short film in which about a dozen deaf people talk simply about their hearing loss and the technology (like cochlear implants) that is transforming how they interact with others. This was wonderful…I learned a lot from listening to these stories.

I was also struck by how difficult it actually is to lump “people who X” into a single category, despite the human desire to tidy people and things into groups. Even among the relatively few people featured in this short film, there were many different approaches and attitudes about deafness. Watching it, you think, jeez, what do all these people really have in common? Probably less than you might have assumed initially. (via @JossFong)

How constraints lead to creativity: making music for Super Nintendo games

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

In this short video, Evan Puschak talks about how music is made for Super Nintendo games. That system was first released in 1990 and the audio chips could only hold 64 KB of information, only enough room for beeps, boops, and very short samples. But composers like David Wise, whose soundtrack for the Donkey Kong Country series of games is on many lists of the best video game music, were able to make the SNES sing despite its limited capabilities.

Clair de Lune in the moonlight

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

NASA recently published this visualization of sunrises and sunsets on the Moon set to the strains of Claude Debussy’s most famous work, Clair de Lune.

The visuals were composed like a nature documentary, with clean cuts and a mostly stationary virtual camera. The viewer follows the Sun throughout a lunar day, seeing sunrises and then sunsets over prominent features on the Moon. The sprawling ray system surrounding Copernicus crater, for example, is revealed beneath receding shadows at sunrise and later slips back into darkness as night encroaches.

A lovely way to spend five minutes. (thx, gina)

Enhance!

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

Enhance

Nicole He has built a voice-controlled game called Enhance in which you speak commands to zoom & enhance images to look for secret codes, just like a detective on a CSI TV show. I bet if you try this in your open plan office, your coworkers will look at you like you’re nuts for a sec but will soon gather around, shouting their own commands at the computer. After all, everyone wants to enhance: