A world without GPS

constellation

Technology creeps up on us until it runs everything. From the New Yorker:

The radio signal that is the lifeblood of the Global Positioning System originates from a constellation of twenty-four satellites, orbiting more than twelve thousand miles above Earth. When it reaches the ground, after about sixty-seven milliseconds, it is so weak as to be almost imperceptible. (G.P.S. experts often compare processing the signal to trying to read by the light of a single bulb in a city thousands of miles away.) The signal tells the receiver the precise moment at which it left the satellite. Given four of these cues, processed simultaneously, the receiver can extrapolate its position in three dimensions. A timing error of as little as a millisecond can throw its calculation off by nearly two hundred miles. […]

That’s a lot of responsibility for such a weak signal. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently determined that, within thirty seconds of a catastrophic G.P.S. shutdown, a position reading would have a margin of error the size of Washington, D.C. After an hour, it would be Montana-sized. Drivers might miss their freeway exits, but planes would also be grounded, ships would drift off course, commuter-rail systems would be tied up, and millions of freight-train cars with G.P.S. beacons would disappear from the map.

Read the rest.

A world without GPS

The beautiful 16th Century maps of Abraham Ortelius

Islandia

Last year I visited Iceland with my wife, Nayeli, and our boys, Oscar and Mateo. I bought a print of an old map of the country, which I’ve now framed.

I didn’t know anything about the history of this map, so I did I little digging and discovered it was made in 1590 (!) by the Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

Abraham made quite a few maps of the world during his lifetime. Although not accurate by modern standards, they are beautiful and fascinating.

See also this brilliant illustrated timeline of maps of Iceland and a previous post comparing a map of Lancashire by John Speed from 1610 with the same view by Google Maps.

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The beautiful 16th Century maps of Abraham Ortelius

Uncanny Valley

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After spending a few years in start-up world I loved this longform article, Uncanny Valley, by Anna Wiener, and the culture it lovingly skewers. Here’s a little extract:

Most start-up offices look the same — faux midcentury furniture, brick walls, snack bar, bar cart. Interior designers in Silicon Valley are either brand-conscious or very literal. When tech products are projected into the physical world they become aesthetics unto themselves, as if to insist on their own reality: the office belonging to a home-sharing website is decorated like rooms in its customers’ pool houses and pieds-à-terre; the foyer of a hotel-booking start-up has a concierge desk replete with bell (no concierge); the headquarters of a ride-sharing app gleams in the same colors as the app itself, down to the sleek elevator bank. A book-related start-up holds a small and sad library, the shelves half-empty, paperbacks and object-oriented-programming manuals sloping against one another. It reminds me of the people who dressed like Michael Jackson to attend Michael Jackson’s funeral.

But this office, of a media app with millions in VC funding but no revenue model, is particularly sexy. This is something that an office shouldn’t be, and it jerks my heart rate way, way up. There are views of the city in every direction, fat leather loveseats, electric guitars plugged into amps, teak credenzas with white hardware. It looks like the loft apartment of the famous musician boyfriend I thought I’d have at 22 but somehow never met. I want to take off my dress and my shoes and lie on the voluminous sheepskin rug and eat fistfuls of MDMA, curl my naked body into the Eero Aarnio Ball Chair, never leave.

It’s not clear whether I’m here for lunch or an interview, which is normal. I am prepared for both and dressed for neither. My guide leads me through the communal kitchen, which has the trappings of every other start-up pantry: plastic bins of trail mix and Goldfish, bowls of Popchips and miniature candy bars. There’s the requisite wholesale box of assorted Clif Bars, and in the fridge are flavored water, string cheese, and single-serving cartons of chocolate milk. It can be hard to tell whether a company is training for a marathon or eating an after-school snack. Once I walked into our kitchen and found two Account Mana­gers pounding Shot Bloks, chewy cubes of glucose marketed to endurance athletes.

Over catered Afghan food, I meet the team, including a billionaire who made his fortune from a website that helps people feel close to celebrities and other strangers they’d hate in real life. He asks where I work, and I tell him. “Oh,” he says, not unkindly, snapping a piece of lavash in two, “I know that company. I think I tried to buy you.”

Read the whole piece here.

Uncanny Valley

Beautiful Anonymous

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I love a good podcast. I even made a list of my favourites here. And some people told me they found that list useful. So here’s a new recommendation. Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People. The concept is this:

1 phone call. 1 hour. No names. No holds barred. That’s the premise behind Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, hosted by comedian Chris Gethard (the Chris Gethard Show, Broad City, This American Life, and one of Time Out’s “10 best comedians of 2015”). Every week, Chris opens the phone line to one anonymous caller, and he can’t hang up first, no matter what. From shocking confessions and family secrets to philosophical discussions and shameless self-promotion, anything can and will happen!

As an added bonus, Chris Gethard sounds an awful lot like Ferris Bueller, which is no bad thing at all.

Start with the first episode, which you can hear here.

Beautiful Anonymous

We used to run this town

Screenshot 2016-04-29 22.07.12From City Lab:

Once ubiquitous in bustling metropolises like New York City, payphones have been cast aside as relics of a tethered time. In the rare instances that we walk past one, we don’t even bat an eye. We barely look up from the sleeker, shinier devices that made them obsolete.

And, well, payphones have something to say about that. “You don’t want to use us anymore? Fine. But do you even see us anymore?”

That comes from “Dead Ringer,” a four-minute film by directors Alex Kliment,  Dana O’Keefe, and Michael Tucker that premiered earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival and was featured online Tuesday by the New Yorker. Against the backdrop of a somber, jazzy tune, one of New York City’s four remaining phone booths narrates its disdain for how invisible payphones have become, despite everything they’ve done for society.

You can watch the short film here.
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We used to run this town

Fallen Astronaut

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I’d never heard of this until today:

Prior to his Apollo 15 lunar mission, astronaut David Scott met Belgian painter and printmaker Paul Van Hoeydonck at a dinner party. It was there agreed that Van Hoeydonck would create a small statuette for Scott to place on the Moon, though their recollections of the details disagree. Scott’s purpose was to commemorate those astronauts and cosmonauts who had lost their lives in the furtherance of space exploration, and he designed and separately made a plaque listing fourteen American and Soviet names. Van Hoeydonck was given a set of design specifications: the sculpture was to be lightweight but sturdy, capable of withstanding the temperature extremes of the Moon; it could not be identifiably male or female, nor of any identifiable ethnic group. According to Scott, it was agreed Van Hoeydonck’s name would not be made public, to avoid the commercial exploitation of the US government’s space program. Scott kept the agreement secret from NASA management prior to the mission, smuggling the statue aboard his spacecraft.

During the Apollo 15 mission, near the completion of his work on the lunar surface on August 1, 1971, Scott secretly placed the Fallen Astronaut on the Moon, along with a plaque bearing the names of eight American astronauts and six Soviet cosmonauts who had died in service:

Scott photographed the memorial, but waited for a post-mission press conference to publicly disclose its existence.

Slate wrote a great piece on this story.

Fallen Astronaut