5 Intriguing Things: Hilary Mason Edition

Decoding a helicopter's position from YouTube audio, Richard Hamming, cycloidal gearing, Pokemon graphs, and building a God robot.
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Greetings from the capital of the United States, where I'll be for the rest of the week. Today's links are brought to you by data scientist and hacker Hilary Mason. You may know her previous work at bitly. These days, she's a data scientist in residence at Accel Partners. What does that mean? As she puts it, "I make beautiful things with data." 

 

1. You can hear the data.

"Last night, YouTube suggested a video for me. It was a raw clip from
a news helicopter filming a police chase in Kansas City, Missouri. I
quickly noticed a weird interference in the audio, especially the left
channel, and thought it must be caused by the chopper's engine. I
turned up the volume and realized it's not interference at all, but a
mysterious digital signal! And off we went again."

+ She was able to reverse engineer the helicopter's telemetry signal and
plot the latitude and longitude on a map!

2. At the end of his long career, Richard Hamming, father of information theory and founder of the Association for Computing Machinery, and general badass, wrote up his lectures on preparing students to be experts in the art of science and engineering.

"I decided that since I was trying to teach 'style' of thinking in science and engineering, and 'style' is an art, I should therefore copy the methods of teaching used for the other arts—once the fundamentals have been learned. How to be a great painter cannot be taught in words; one learns by trying many different approaches that seem to surround the subject. Art teachers usually let the advanced student paint, and then make suggestions on how they would have done it, or what might also be tried, more or less as the points arise in the student's head--which is where the learning is supposed to occur! In this series of lectures I try to communicate to students what cannot be said in words--the essence of style in science and engineering."

3. Cycloidal gears are obsolete—and have been for decades—but clock designers just won't give them up.

"Clock designers, however, were not about to drop the cycloidal tooth. It had served them well for centuries, and for them there had been no change in circumstances. In clocks, the speeds are low and loads are light, so noise and wear are not significant. Besides, at that time (circa 1900), there was no way of calculating the center distance for involute pinions with low numbers of teeth. It would have been necessary to construct large tooth layouts -- a complex construction which is not very accurate."

 

4. Wolfram Alpha will generate curves in the shape of Pokemon.

 

5. In 1853, a man climbed a hill in Massachusetts and tried to build a
god robot.

"Spear and a handful of followers retreated to a wooden shed at the
top of High Rock hill in Lynn, Massachusetts, where they set to work
creating the 'New Motive Power,' a mechanical Messiah which was
intended to herald a new era of Utopia. The New Motive Power was
constructed of copper, zinc and magnets, all carefully machined, as
well as a dining room table. At the end of nine months, Spear and
'Nathanael Santoso', an unnamed woman, ritualistically birthed the
contraption in an attempt to give it life."

 

Thanks, @drewconway.
 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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