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« October 2006 | Main | December 2006 »

Yao: Rejected!

In this clip, we watch in open-mouthed wonder as 7-foot-6-inch leviathan Yao Ming becomes the property of 5-foot-9-inch Nate Robinson. Yao, whose defender had left him to guard the ball, receives a pass and leaves his feet for what should have been an easy one-foot jumper. But Robinson flies in from the weak side, takes a strong two-footed leap, and smacks the shot out of Yao’s hands (and back into his face) just as he shoots. Yao doubles over and brings his hands to his face, covering not only his injury but his deep sense of shame.

Before analyzing the physics of this maneuver, it’s tempting to assume the following things: Robinson, who gives up 21 inches to Yao, seems to be an immeasurably more talented athlete who plays with more energy and shows more heart. He certainly has a superior vertical leap (measure the height of Robinson’s shoes relative to Yao’s leg in this clip). But Robinson is not just 21 inches shorter than Yao. At 180 pounds, he’s 130 pounds lighter than Yao’s 310. Every time Robinson jumps, he’s moving less weight, and less weight takes less energy.

Just how much less energy? Let’s figure out how Yao’s and Robinson’s vertical leaps would compare if each expended the same amount of energy. The energy of a jump—and hence the work that must go into jumping—is proportional to both the jumper’s weight and how high he gets off the ground. Since we know that Yao weighs 58.1 percent more than Robinson does (180 divided by 310 equals 0.581), we can calculate that Yao’s vertical leap should be only 58.1 percent of Robinson’s.

Although updated numbers are hard to come by, Robinson’s vertical was measured to be 42 inches when he was drafted, and Yao’s as around two feet (a note to the viewer: two-foot vertical not on display in this video). Robinson can jump twice as high as Yao, so we can conclude that Yao would have to work twice as hard to reach the same height.

The lesson: Apply the same amount of energy to a smaller body and that body will jump higher every time. That, and Yao should dunk when he’s a foot away from the basket. —Michael Moyer


Flight of the Pole Dancer
Shake, Shake Chinook
Crane Overboard!
Goodbye, Moto
Stick That Landing

What's Your Web-Surfing Fingerprint Look Like?


Hey, you. Yeah, you, reading this blog. What are you doing with your life? Killing time at work, are you? Fair enough, I suppose, but where's the creativity gone? What are you doing right now that could someday hang on somebody's wall? Nothing, right? Heck, even monkeys and elephants are millionaire artists in these modern times, and here you are, reading. Jeesh.

Never fear, though, for as it often does, human ingenuity has prevailed. You can now turn your idle Web surfing and e-mailing into fairly interesting illustrations—just one of the functions for the brilliantly hacked 2X Mouse. Just splice together two old serial mice according to this how-to [link], and hook your new mutant mouse into two computers. Start up a full-screen drawing application in one (like the free Gimp) and go about your business on the other. After a while, the second computer will render a unique visual record of your everyday clicking and dragging.

My data-visualization fetish just keeps coming up on this blog, but the 2X Mouse takes it to new heights. A concrete visual record of something as abstract (and ubiquitous) as using a computer? What will my surfing fingerprint look like? Will it look like yours? Bill Gates's? My dad's? A monkey's?? I guess there's only one way to find out. To the IT room's garbage bin!

If you've happened to take the plunge yourself, we'd love to see the results. Post links to your images in the comments, or mail them to [email protected] —John Mahoney

PS - Bigup to Instructables where this hack resides—a great site.

Geotagging Flickr Photos


304041344_6936f5ca80_b What does Jay-Z have to do with Jimmy Kimmel, Pontiac and Second Life? We’re not sure either, but we wish we were the marketing brains who brought together the strange collaboration that occured in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning as the reigning king of hip-hop leapt out of retirement with a performance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and a simulcast on Pontiac’s SL Motorati Life island. If nothing else, the presence of one of America’s most popular recording artists in SL should make non-believers stop and think for a sec: Maybe this virtual-world thing is more than a passing trend? We were lucky enough to be there—in avatar form, of course—to witness worlds colliding. 

The long and short of it is, while you were stuffing your face with turkey and enjoying a four-day weekend (but hey, we’re not judgin’—why do you think this post is coming so late?), Jay-Z was on a manic back-from-retirement blitz, utilizing live performances, record album sales and Web streaming to race into the market on all four cylinders. Since Tuesday, his new album, Kingdom Come, has sold more than 850,000 copies, and his benefit Friday at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, "H2 the IzzO", raised $250,000 for PlayPumps International, an organization that brings ingenious water pumps powered by children’s merry-go-rounds to African villages. That show was also streamed live, on AOL music. Whew. And I thought eating Aunt Dorothy’s giblet dressing was a lot to deal with.

Whereas the Jimmy Kimmel show was attended by hordes of die-hard, screaming hip-hop fans, the in-world event was by invitation only, attended by 80 avatars sitting stock-still so we wouldn’t crash the sim. The crowd mostly consisted of folks invited by Millions of Us, the design house that coordinated this event (as well as the PopSci Future Lounge,) bloggers, and presumably some Pontiac folks. Needless to say, our crowd of uber-nerds was a pretty far cry from Jay-Z’s usual target demographic, but everyone was SUPER excited to be there. Sample nerd chatter overheard before the star hit the stage:

“Pixel sex is the best. There are still some things you can’t do, but still…”
“Obviously you haven’t tried it with a pose ball yet. Is it wrong that I want to sing the Smurfs theme song right now?”
“Jigga WHAT? Jigga Woooohoo!"

Yeah. So anyway, welcome, to the ‘hood, Hova. —Megan Miller

See images from the Jay-Z show in Second Life here

Sticking the Landing

Ordinarily, driving is pretty straightforward: You just point the wheels and go. But piloting an aircraft is trickier, because you not only must deal with complexities like the potential for traffic above and below the plane, but your roadway—the air—moves. Until it’s time to land, of course. Seamlessly transitioning from sky to asphalt is the most difficult thing a pilot regularly has to execute, especially when winds are strong and blowing from side to side (as in the crosswind landing featured in this video). But it’s easy enough to understand what a pilot should do in such circumstances, even if you’re too freaked out to ever in a million years attempt to do it yourself. All you need are vectors.

A vector describes how something moves; picture it as an arrow. The vector’s length describes how fast the thing is moving, and its direction tells you which way it’s going. If you threw a baseball straight up in the air, the vector that described its movement would start out long—the ball’s going fast—and pointed toward the sky. Then the vector would shorten as the ball slowed and, at the top of its arc, would flip downward and grow long again as the ball fell.

If an object is moving in or on a medium that’s also moving—a person on a moving sidewalk, a swimmer in water, a plane in the sky—you figure out how the two will move together by taking the vector for the object and the vector for the medium and joining them together head-to-tail.

In our example, the wind is whipping from left to right, so its vector points that way. For the plane to move straight ahead, its vector must cancel out the left-to-right vector of the wind. That means it has to point a little to the left, or into the wind.

Of course, once the plane hits the ground, it had better be pointing in the direction it’s moving. That’s why the pilot has to straighten the plane out at the last second. If he did it any earlier, the wind would start to pull the plane to the right; if he did it any later, the plane would hit the tarmac sideways and flip over onto its wing. And you thought parallel parking hard. —Michael Moyer


Flight of the Pole Dancer
Shake, Shake Chinook
Crane Overboard!
Goodbye, Moto

In Spanish, We Say "Ritmos"

Delmundo Back in the day, big-time musicians used to regularly get together for all-star jams benefiting good causes like famine relief, AIDS research and ending apartheid. But ever since the problems that afflicted the world in the ’80s were magically fixed through the transformative power of mediocre pop songs (thanks for opening our eyes, Bono!), rock stars appear less eager to join forces onstage against the intractable ills of the 21st century. Nowadays, the good work is done through compilation albums.

Enter Rhythms del Mundo (just wondering: why not hispanicize all three titular words?), a high-minded album created to raise money for the green activist organization Artists Project Earth. Although it’s a bit unclear exactly how the group plans to use the money—the Web site mentions raising public awareness of the need to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions—it’s a refreshing approach to environmental fundraising.

The project features a weird mix of do-gooder artists, including the usual mainstream suspects (Sting, U2, Maroon 5, Jack Johnson), along with bands with more indie cred, like the Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs. All the songs on the album are infused with Latin rhythms inspired by the Buena Vista Social Club, and late, great Social Club members Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo appear on a few tracks. Even Coldplay, the recording industry’s answer to unflavored yogurt, gets revitalized with some Cuban flair. Be sure to check out one of the standout tracks, a spiced-up version of Sting’s “Fragile.” Get the message? The planet is fragile. Yes, it’s about as subtle as a cattle prod, but it does sound good. —Doug Cantor

The Campaign Rolls On

Nixonad With the midterm elections over, you may find yourself missing the warm buzz of negative campaign ads in your home every night. No? Well, you should still check out the Museum of the Moving Image's excellent online exhibition “The Living Room Candidate,” which compiles TV commercials from every presidential campaign since 1952. It's truly fascinating to see how they've (d)evolved. May I suggest starting in the turbulence of 1968, where Richard Nixon's Vietnam-related ads are particularly trippy (“I pledge to you we will have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam”). Also cool are the downloadable election-focused lesson plans for teachers. Who's ready for '08? —John Mahoney

Wii Broke It

Wiitopsy_ss_15 It is with a heavy heart that we bring you this special weekend report. When PopSci's Wii arrived last week, it didn't spend too much time in the box. Ripped open without any hesitation, our little Wii gave us a long Friday's worth of furious Wii Sports and Excite Truck action at PopSci HQ. But then, it was time for it to go off to a photo shoot, where its fate would be sealed.

The plan was simple: carefully disassemble the little white box and controllers for a detailed inside look, then re-assemble it with ease and get back to where we left off, working up a sweat bludgeoning our little cartoon selves in Wii Sports Boxing. But the Wii proved to be one tough nut to crack. Due to Nintendo's special proprietary screws, we had to resort to brute force. And in the process of doing so, our precious white beacon of joy was rendered unplayable, forever.

But in the interest of making the best of a decidedly horrific situation, we figured it best to finish the job with a full, heart-wrenching disassembly. Here we bring you a visual record of our Wii's autopsy— put on your recording of bagpipes playing "Taps," get out your hankies, and click here to launch the gallery. Sniff. —John Mahoney

PS3 Launched, World Proceeds to Lose Mind

The scene Thursday outside of an Americatown,
USA Best Buy. Photo by Matt McGee

What a day it has been. November 17, 2006: the date that will go down in history as the moment the world lost its collective mind over a new video game console. I'm as excited as the next guy about the sweet new hardware coming out this weekend, but damn...

I pose a challenge: find me a major online media outlet—local, national or otherwise—that doesn't have at least one mention of the insanity surrounding the Playstation 3 launch. With so many angles to choose from, it's going to be tough: there's the obvious low-hanging fruit in the unwashed hordes who, in forming ad-hoc shanty towns in parking lots around the country, sacrificed not only the $600 for the console and how ever much more for games and accessories, but also their dignity. But wait a minute, there's also the heartwarming tale of said unwashed immediately regaining said dignity (and an obscene profit) after, upon returning home, foregoing the urge to shower just long enough flip their just-purchased console on eBay.

The list goes on: armed robberies of Gamestop stores, Ludacris-hosted parties for the NYC refugees at the Sony Store, riots at a California Best Buy, shameful enlistments of the homeless to wait in line, a man hospitalized after running into a light pole in a mad dash for his place in line (a full day before they even went on sale) and my personal favorite, a first-hand account on a forum of a man who, along with his fellow campers, was robbed at gunpoint outside of a New York mall by a man hoping to take advantage of some tired, delirious gamers that may or may not have $600 in cash in their wallets.

Stay tuned for a similar challenge on Sunday when we do it all over again with Nintendo's Wii. Can't wait! —John Mahoney

Grand Opening! The PopSci's Second Life Future Lounge

Sllounge_main_385 We here at PopSci.com cordially invite you to attend the grand opening of our brand-new home in Second Life—the PopSci Future Lounge! Our virtual digs will be the place to come hang out with PopSci editors, attend events and concerts, pick up some free schwag or take a ride in our futuristic Concepts and Prototypes vehicles before they exist in the real world.

Join us tonight starting at 6:30 p.m. PST (9:30 p.m. on the East Coast) for opening remarks and a ribbon-cutting by editor in chief Mark Jannot (PS Mandelbrot in-world), and stay to check out live sets from PopSci podcaster Jonathan Coulton as well as Second Life musicians Nance Brody and DJ Nexeus Fatale. Or swing on up to our green-roof dancefloor/garden. Or pick up a shiny new Nokia 770 Internet Tablet for your avatar to chat with. Or kick back and see the video on our massive solar-powered flat screen. Or fly around on a kick-ass rocket-powered PopSci Slegeway (we're giving one free to the first 100 attendees. I've already logged some serious flight time, and they're a blast). Seriously, PopSci knows how to virtually throw down. 

So come on over to our new home tonight (SL link here, be sure to IM Baccara Millionsofus in-world to get on the guest list)—we're the place with the giant Skystream windmills on the roof; you can't miss it. We've warned the neighbors over at Wired that it could be a rager (possibility of Wired vs. PopSci dance competition: high). And if this whole Second Life thing still doesn't make much sense, why not have a look at our in-depth primer from the September issue and give it a try? See ya there!—John Mahoney/Ricky Romeo

Goodbye, Moto

Though A-Team reruns would have you believe otherwise, vehicles that crash in real life aren’t immediately and inexorably consumed by giant explosions. Any movie geek knows this. Gasoline doesn’t explode—it burns, just like wood—except in the uncommon environment of an internal combustion engine. Yet our unlucky racer’s motorcycle blows up with such vigor, you’d think Michael Bay placed the explosive charges there himself. So what gives?

The answer lies in the way the bike tumbles across the racetrack. Take a close look at how it flips before conflagration. The first time the bike bounces off the ground, the force seems to knock the cap off the gas tank. As the bike flips again, you can see racing fuel spray out of the top of the tank in great arcs, billowing through the air along with the dirt and gravel kicked up by the skid. This, as they say, is a bad sign.

Gasoline, like every other fuel, needs oxygen to burn. Ordinarily, if you were to set a match to a pool of gasoline, only its surface would burn, because only its surface would be in contact with the oxygen in air. But as it’s injected into your engine, the gasoline is atomized (imagine a tiny gasoline spritzer set on “mist”) in order to thoroughly mix the fuel with air before your spark plug ignites the combination. Since every bit of nearby fuel is now surrounded by oxygen, this flame spreads almost instantaneously through the combustion chamber until everything is alight.

But in the case of the motorcycle explosion, the bike’s acrobatics did the work of atomizing the gasoline. Once a spark ignited the little droplets, the whole thing went up in a bang. So a word to the wise: If you’re going to have a catastrophic accident in a motorcycle race, try to keep your gas cap on. —Michael Moyer


Flight of the Pole Dancer
Shake, Shake Chinook
Crane Overboard!

Where the Wild Things Are

Rhino_1 Productivity is at an all-time low around the office since we discovered wavelit.com’s watering-hole webcam. Set atop a termite mound and focused on a little pond on Sabi Sands Game Reserve, which abuts South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the 24-hour-a-day “Africam” pans and zooms to get the best, longest view of the creatures that visit. Right now it’s nighttime in the reserve, and nary a wildebeest is stirring, but earlier we saw a pack of impala, a herd of snorting buffalo, a critter that appeared to be a hyena and, best of all, a hulking rhino looking for a drink. OK, so a lot of the time, nothing happens, but it’s fun to keep a window open on your desktop anyway. The sound of chirping crickets calms this beleaguered cubicle dweller, and it’s a gas to yell “Warthog!” across the office and see your colleagues come running. —Martha Harbison

Attention Original Recipe-Loving Aliens

Giantcolonel Sometimes at night, scientists stare out at the vast universe, and they wonder what’s out there. They wonder if it’s wondering about us. They wonder if whatever's out there is, at that very moment, looking down and marveling at the Great Wall of China or the glimmering lights of our magnificent cities. Or the giant faces of our fast-food mascots.

After many months of secrecy and hiding enormous tiles behind its back whenever anyone walked in the room, KFC revealed an 87,500-square-foot smiling mug of Colonel Sanders yesterday, installed in the Nevada desert near Area 51 (of course). The icon has earned KFC the distinction of being the world’s first brand to be visible from space, made possible by some 50 designers, architects, engineers and astrophysicists who surprisingly didn’t have more pressing tasks to attend to.

What propels such a colossal and noble undertaking? KFC president Gregg Dedrick explained his motive thusly: “If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice.” He continued, somewhat less coherently, “For now, we'll be very content satisfying the entire human population with our ‘finger lickin' good’ chicken. Besides, who knows if extraterrestrials even have fingers? If we hear back from a life-form in space today—whether NASA astronauts or a signal from some life-form on Mars—we'll send up some Original Recipe chicken.”

We salute your pioneering ways, Dedrick. Oh, did we mention that unlike some beings, we actually do have fingers? And love Original Recipe? Just sayin'—don't forget to save some for us. —Abby Seiff

The Breakdown: Crane Overboard!

Physics has given us a great many simple principles that make it easier to understand what’s going on in the world, some better-known than others. To wit: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; what goes up must come down—both classics, for good reason. And the blingiest of the axioms, E=mc², is particularly useful for understanding why a fistful of plutonium can cause such a big bang. Less famous but far more important on a day-to-day basis if you’re an SUV designer, a high jumper or—as in the present case—a crane operator, is the principle that any object will behave as if all its weight is concentrated at its center of mass.

Finding an object’s center of mass is fairly simple. It’s the point at which half the mass is above the center and half below, half is on the right and half on the left, and half is in front and half in back. If you stand straight up with your arms at your sides, your center of mass is a little below your bellybutton (unless you’re J. Lo). But here’s the important part: If your center of mass is not above your feet, you’re going to fall over. The same principle works for a crane. If the center of mass of the total system—crane plus whatever it’s carrying—moves to one side of the crane’s base, the crane will tip.

As our crane lifts the bus out of the water, trouble is a-brewin’. The water itself is holding up the partially submerged bus. (Remember Archimedes? No? Here: Water pushes up on an object with a force equal to the weight of the water being displaced—this is the reason things feel lighter in water.) As the bus leaves the river, the crane takes on more of its weight until the center of mass shifts so far away from the crane’s arm that suddenly there’s a tip, a splash and the call for a bigger crane. —Michael Moyer


Flight of the Pole Dancer
Shake, Shake Chinook

Anousheh on Canvas, Courtesy Peter Max

Anousheh_max If you’ve ever taken a look at the contemporary art world and thought to yourself, “There sure seems to be a dearth of space-tourist paintings,” you’re in luck. Last week at his New York City studio, Peter Max, the American Pop artist whose style influenced the Beatles’s iconic Yellow Submarine film, unveiled his latest project: 16 DayGlo portraits of Anousheh Ansari.

Ansari made headlines last month when an eight-day stint at the International Space Station earned her the title of first female space tourist (additionally: the first Iranian, the first Muslim woman, the first to blog about it, the first to shoot homemade videos and post them online… you get the idea).

Max says he’s been interested in space since his encounter with a Tibetan astronomer when he was a child living in China. When he met Buzz Aldrin (whom he has also painted), he thought to himself, “Oh my god, I’m standing here with a man who stood on the moon.” Now Max has moved on to his next muse: “I am in awe of her. What inspired me was Ansari—that she had the will, the nerve, the wherewithal.”

Later I cornered Ansari at the snack table. She was awfully nice about my interrupting her coffee break and told me she liked how the paintings captured the happiness she felt in space. In each of the 16 portraits hanging on the wall, Ansari looks ecstatic—a marked change from the discomfort induced by the cameras, writers and handlers with her in Max’s studio back on terra firma. “The whole time I was there, it was a joy. I certainly miss being in space,” she says. “I look up at the sky and think about the two people still there. I keep thinking about what they’re doing now. It’s something hard.” —Abby Seiff

Shake, Shake Chinook

Everything has a beat. A rhythm. A frequency at which it likes to shake. You can rock most objects off-beat for as long and hard as you like, and not much will happen (see: the career of John Mayer). But start to push and pull in time with the natural frequency—the “resonant” frequency—of the object in question, and it will quite literally start to fall apart, much like the helicopter in the video below.

I always understood resonant frequencies best by thinking of the old-timey toy the paddleball. This uniquely solitary time-waster—Minesweeper for the Greatest Generation—consists of a bouncy red ball attached by elastic string to a small wooden paddle. Success comes when you hit the ball, the elastic pulls it back to the paddle, and you hit it again. And again and again and again. You quickly notice that there’s only one frequency that works, only one rhythm that prevents you from flailing wildly at the stupid little red ball. This is the paddle’s resonant frequency, and in this case, it’s a good thing.

Not so when dealing with bridges, skyscrapers or helicopters, however. Shake these at their resonant frequency, and the back-and-forth motion spells trouble. Each push adds more and more energy to the object—energy that, if not dissipated, starts to wreak havoc. That’s what happens with our Chinook. The rotating blades begin to shake the airframe at its resonant frequency, and physics takes care of the rest: Because the blades are unable to dissipate the excess energy, the convulsions rend them from the fuselage.

According to PopSci’s aviation expert, Bill Sweetman, helicopters are prone to resonant effects, which is why resonance ground testing (as seen in this video) is a standard part of chopper R&D. If both blades in a twin-rotor helicopter share the same heavy vibration and the engine mounts aren’t rock-solid, the energy generated can actually make the motors start moving around the engine mounts, and the next thing you know, that bird’s goose is cooked.

Sweetman also offered up this anecdotal tidbit: “Little-known fact: Charles Kaman, a U.S. heli designer who was also a bluegrass guitar player, combined his knowledge of acoustics and fiberglass (used in rotor blades) to create the Ovation guitar series.” Cue Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”. . .  —Michael Moyer

The Breakdown: Flight of the Pole Dancer
The Full-Tilt Flying Machine

For a side view of the same test, click here.

Did the Diet Coke/Mentos Guys Just Sell Out?

Dietcoke_vid If you still haven't seen the Mentos-and-Diet-Coke-fountain video that came out earlier this year, congratulations. You are among the few, the proud—the ultimate YouTube luddites. Chances are, though, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Which makes what happened this week all the more interesting.

On Monday, Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz, the two backyard scientists behind the Diet Coke/Mentos experiment, released a sequel to their original phenomenon as the first Google “Sponsored Video”—a new program from our Internet overlords aimed at sharing ad revenue with marquee videographers. The new video (see below), in which the lab-coated duo initiate a domino-effect chain reaction with their famous two-liter Diet Coke fountains, features prominent linkage to coke.com and mentos.com, followed by a short message urging viewers to enter a coke.com-sponsored contest by submitting their own Mentos/Diet Coke–related footage.

The new Google program presents another potential solution to the challenge underlying the explosive popularity of online video: finding the best way to make money from the immense mishmash of user-generated clips. Grobe and Voltz made $35,000 on their first video’s massive viral success via Revver, a YouTube–like site that serves an ad at the end of each video and splits the revenue generated with you 50/50 based on how many times your clip is viewed. The financial details of their current deal with Google, Coke and Mentos are, so far, unavailable.

Unlike Google’s revolutionary AdSense service, which capitalizes on small amounts of targeted-ad revenue collected by millions of smaller sites across the Net, Google video sponsorship will be available only to large-scale content providers with more than 1,000 hours of content or broadcast exposure.

The question remains, though: Is this landmark arrangement a glimpse at the future of online video? Will the second video, with its unabashed commerciality, be as fun as the first one (which even without the obvious branding probably encouraged the sale of lots of Diet Coke and Mentos)? What do you think? Watch it below and let us know in the comments. —John Mahoney

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