Interactive Map of 100,000 Real Stars

This is pretty amazing.

2013 02 22 100000 Stars

It’s an interactive map that lets you zoom all the way from the sun and our solar system out to the Milky Way, including a view of 100,000 real nearby stars (there are 200 – 400 billion in the entire Milky Way). You can zoom and scroll around to get an idea of what our little interstellar neighborhood is like.

I viewed it in Chrome (which is what it’s designed for), and I hear it works in Firefox (that’s where I first heard about it) but I don’t know about IE.


Eerily Ringing Cell Phones After Nightclub Inferno

Brazil Nightclub FireOn Sunday a nightclub fire in Brazil killed 231 people. The nightclub was rated for a crowd of 1,000, but there were 2,000 inside when the fire broke out. Confused security guards initially locked the doors because they didn’t see the fire and thought people were trying to run without settling bar tabs. The insulation in the building released toxic smoke as it burned, confusing people and leading about 50 to cram into the bathroom, apparently believing that they had found an exit door.

When first responders enetered the building they were confronted with piles of bodies both in the bathroom and near the exist. There was complete and total silence… except for the ringing of cell phones. Many of the victims died from asphyxiation or being trampled, leaving their cell phones intact. Since only a few hours had passed, the batteries were still charged. And since word of the disaster had gotten out, anxious friends and relatives were calling, getting no answer, and leaving messages their loved ones would never hear.

This is the first time I’d heard of this happening, but according to a article it’s actually fairly common:

The dead can’t speak. Their cell phones do.

And, for police, firefighters and paramedics, the incessant chirping, bleating and incongruously cheerful boom box beats of victims’ cell phones comprise a soundtrack of disaster.

It happened at the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, a commuter train crash in Los Angeles the next year, the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, last July and, again, at the night club fire in Brazil that killed 231 people on Sunday.

The article, bearing the headline “Eerie sounds of cell phones amid disaster adds to first-responder toll”, explains that it’s not just a haunting image for folks reading newspaper accounts. For the first responders on the scene, it’s a genuine psychological problem:

The incessantly ringing phones and the realization that someone is desperately trying to reach someone else who is now dead, short-circuits the psychological defenses first responders need to do their jobs, said Jim Crabtree, a registered nurse who helps train them for the Los Angeles County Emergency Management Services Agency.

2013 01 29 Coffins of Brazil Nightclub VictimsFirst responders at the Aurora shooting, where 12 peopel died, had to contend with a few cell phones. At the Brazilian nightclub there were nearly 1,000 cell phones ringing without owners, and one had already registered over 100 missed calls. There may be some glimmer of solace in the fact that 3 out of 4 of the discarded cell phones in Brazil actually had survivors (only 231, not 1,000 people were dead), but how do you balance that against the memory of a a cell phone ringing from inside a body bag?

First responers want permission to be able to turn off cell phones while they are doing their work, but according to policies written in decades past, this could technically be tampering with evidence. It will take new policies to address the problem–and new training to prepare first responders–and that will take some time.

It’s a 21st century problem, and we just haven’t figured out how to handle it yet.

Open Sourcing Team Obama’s Secret Weapon?

There have been quite a few articles detailing the supremacy of the Obama campaign’s Narwhal over the Romney campaign’s Narwhal. (No, really. Quite a few.) So many, in fact, that back in November I wondered if the disparity was big enough to be considered a problem for democracy. That doesn’t appear to be the concern of the erstwhile Obama coders, but there’s definitely a kind of civil war brewing between the programmers and the politicians. The Verge explains:

But in the aftermath of the election, a stark divide has emerged between political operatives and the techies who worked side-by-side. At issue is the code created during the Obama for America (OFA) 2012 campaign: the digital architecture behind the campaign’s website, its system for collecting donations, its email operation, and its mobile app. When the campaign ended, these programmers wanted to put their work back into the coding community for other developers to study and improve upon. Politicians in the Democratic party felt otherwise, arguing that sharing the tech would give away a key advantage to the Republicans. Three months after the election, the data and software is still tightly controlled by the president and his campaign staff, with the fate of the code still largely undecided. It’s a choice the OFA developers warn could not only squander the digital advantage the Democrats now hold, but also severely impact their ability to recruit top tech talent in the future.

It really shows the extent to which neither party–the GOP or the Democrats–are really up-to-date with the concerns of the rising generation of technological natives. For a brief moment back in December, David Brooks even led a charge claiming that the GOP has a haven to open-minded intellectuals. The GOP slammed the door on that idea almost immediately, however. As the Maddow Blog reported, Derek Khanna (one of the folks Brooks called out by name as a future luminary) submitted a paper on intellectual property rights calling for reform. Almost immediately, however, the Republican Study Committee withdrew the report and then fired Khanna.

That kind of complete idiocy from the GOP means that the Democrats have the latitude to abuse their own techy base, and solidifies that no matter how lazy the Democrats might be about issues important to the Internet generations, they are still a better option than the stodgy, reactionary, and frequently corporatist GOP.

So, will Team Obama outsource Orca? I doubt it. Why should they?

Search Wars: Google vs. Facebook

One of the things that is the strangest to me about following tech news these days is that it’s awfully darn hard to keep track of who is rivals with whom. The basic reason for this is that all the new technologies: portable devices, search, operating systems, advertising, and online retails are all interconnected. In the old days it seemed like the rivalries were pretty distinct: Apple vs. Microsoft for OS was more or less totally distinct from AMD vs. Intel for microprocessors.

These days none of that applies. One day Apple and Amazon are rivals (iPad vs. Kindle Fire) on hardware and the next it’s Google vs. Microsoft (with Bing, Microsoft’s entry into search), but in between it’s also Google vs. Apple. In a word: it’s one great big free-for-all and the prize is information about you and me.

So here comes the newest entrant into this melee: Facebook is taking on Google in search. It might not seem like an obvious battle at first, but an article at goes into the advantages Facebook has over Google (and, along the way, sheds new light on the launch of Google’s ill-timed G+ competitor to Facebook). The give the following kinds of searches that will be easy to do in Facebook, but virtually impossible in Google:

  • Restaurants run by employees of a particular cooking school
  • Pictures by friends who live in London
  • Friends who are friends with people who work for a particular company, say all the people at Facebook who know people who work at Apple
  • Product managers who have turned into company founders
  • Movies that your friends like

Even if the search wars don’t really get a new front, this is just one application of Facebook’s announcement that they are going to make their information available via Graph Search. At a minimum, you should finally be able to search easily for all photos you ever liked. That’s actually pretty awesome for me as a writer, because I’ve got well over 150,000 words on Facebook and a lot of the time it’s clear, focused writing that I’d love to find and then turn into articles, but it’s basically impossible for me to find anything I’ve written more than a couple of weeks ago.

If you’re interested in some more background on Graph Search announcement, Slashdot has an initial rundown.

New Asteroid Mining Company Launched!

You know the future is really here when you get to write about not the first, but the second company founded to mine asteroids. I’m on the mailing list for the first, Planetary Resources, which was founded last April. The new one is called Deep Space Industries, Inc.

They plan “to launch a fleet of prospecting spacecraft in 2015, then begin harvesting metals and water from near-Earth asteroids within a decade or so.”  The plans are exciting, obviously, but I still remain a little bit skeptical. According to DSI the point is not to ship the raw materials back down to earth (those asteroids would have be pure platinum to make that worthwhile, I’m guessing), but instead to have the raw material ready for in-space cosntruction of more ships and habitats for more exploration. Sounds awesome, but now we not only need to figure out how to mine the asteroids, but also how to build an assembly line up there.

Still, given advances in robotics, this doesn’t sounds that far-fetched in terms of technical capability. It’s the economic profitability that has me wondering.

In any case, I can’t help but be excited!

Artist Creates Anti-Drone Stealth Hoodies

Last year, British artist Adam Harvey created a line of facial makeup that can be used to foil face-recognition cameras. This year, he has created  a line of sweatshirts with thermal-blocking materials designed to hide people from drones.

According to the article:

Wearing the fabric would make that part of the body look black to a drone, so the image would appear like disembodied legs. He also designed a pouch for cell phones that shields them from trackers by blocking the radio signals the phone emits. For those airport X-ray machines, he has a shirt with a printed design that blocks the radiation from one’s heart.

Obviously the sweatshirts can’t make people invisible (not without cooking them by trapping all the thermal energy), and so I’m not sure if the hoodie is supposed to trick automatic tracking or just make people harder for human operators or drones to track, but with permits for domestic use of drones passing in the US it’s no wonder that libertarians and privacy activists believe it’s time for a little push-back.

It’s also interesting to think that the odd styles imagined by science fiction writers might emerge in part as a kind of arms race between surveillance states and their citizens. If only a few  people wear clothes or makeup like this, they will stand out. But if they actually gain even moderate acceptance, then we’ll be off to the races.

AutoRip: Another Reason Record Labels Suck

Amazon recently announced a service that would have been cutting edge in 1999. AutoRip lets you buy a physical CD and automatically get sent the MP3 files to go with it. Why didn’t someone think of this in the last century? Someone did. Michael Robertson started companies to offer this service in 1999, 2005, and 2007. Each and every one was torpedoed by the industry (with the occasional help of incompetent courts). Turns out some kind of stupid are just beyond helping.

Michael Robertson, whom I imagine saying, “I told you so!”

Read the ArsTechnica article for more of the sad story, and some excellent quotes from Robertson.