#18: Old maths, new design | Music for the birds | Sticks that walk | Burger battles

art | science | digital culture | design | creativity | words | tech

In which we mention (but not in this order): Andy Goldsworthy, artificial intelligence, birdcall flutes, burgers, coastal rivalry, Marcel Duchamp, mathematics and physics, new music, robot dogs, and sticks.

science | design | words

Isaac Newton’s Principia for a modern era

Newton’s Principia is one of the most important texts of the modern era of mathematics and physics. For the 330th anniversary in 2017, the publisher Kronecker Wallis printed an edition completely redesigned and typeset with exquisite attention.

I haven’t seen it in person but the images look stunning and I wish I could get my hands on it. Actually, I could now as it is being reissued through a Kickstarter campaign in its last few days. Unfortunately the weakness of the Australian dollar doesn’t help my cause, especially when the shipping alone to Australia from Europe is expensive. But if you want to check it out, you can see great images on the publisher’s website and order it yourself (but the campaign closes in a couple of days).

art | science

Album + tour + … birdcalls?

Björk has always blazed new trails in music and performance. In the most recent stages of her career, she has drawn a lot of connections between nature, technology, and music with albums like Biophilia.

Now she is taking her album Utopia back on tour with a stage show called Cornucopia. However, there is an accompanying physical re-release of the album that screams for my attention. The album will be packaged with a set of 14 handmade birdcall flutes.

On her website about it, she says:

“utopia is so much about birdsong and sonically the mutation between synth/bird, bird/flute, flute/synth ....... air like that was a theme through all of the album. so i got very excited when i found these handmade wooden flutes imitating precisely particular birds. and i guess wanted you guys to have an opportunity to share that with me”

I like how, in some ways, the album and videos are almost an afterthought, tucked away as digital files on a USB stick up in the top left corner of the packaging.

This unboxing video below gives you a better sense for its physicality. But £500… another thing I’d love to get but can’t justify! It releases in November if you’re interested.

art | technology

Walking sticks

Robots are becoming more lifelike and capable all the time. Case study: the Boston Dynamics robots that seem like they are going to take over the world in a dystopian future—robot dogs that can open doors?!

It is good to know that robots don’t need to be so complicated though and that they can be trained to perform complex actions relatively simply now with a combination of technologies including artificial intelligence.

In a recent project by Japanese researchers, a robot made from collected sticks was trained to walk.

I found the paper about it really interesting because the whole project is positioned in an art context, drawing a trajectory through Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Andy Goldsworthy’s found nature arrangements. It could easily have been a straight tech/engineering/computer science project but placing it among art give the project some extra richness.

The researchers collected some sticks, weighed and 3d scanned them, made a computer model, and then trained the collection of sticks to walk using an artificial intelligence technique called reinforcement learning. It’s not a pretty kind of walking but it works. The video below shows it well.

It’s a cumbersome way to make a robot, yes, but other robots have used sensors to learn about their environments without needing to be fully modelled inside a computer first. We’re probably not too far away from people being able to pick up a bunch of objects, strap them together with some motors, and letting the contraption teach itself to walk. At least then I won’t have to worry about robot dogs—they will pale in comparison to a future of self-assembling random objects that can teach themselves to chase you down.

design | science

The Best Burgers

Now that I don’t live in America, I don’t need to take part in the cultural phenomenon of the burger wars and the continuing east coast/west coast battle of Five Guys vs In-N-Out. But it’s fun to see this data visualisation of a large survey of burger joints.

Nathan Yau at Flowing Data took some market survey results that rated burger places on eight criteria and visualised it all. Dealing with that amount of data is hard if it’s in a table of numbers like this one that the market survey company released:

How do you begin to make sense of that? Yau used a visualisation tool called the radar plot to show the different factors at once for each chain. A radar plot can be most useful when you are looking to get an overall sense for high ratings on lots of criteria as the image has more visual weight only if it does well on many criteria. You can see the plots Yau made below.

If you care most about one particular criterion, you can still easily do a comparison but the power of the tool is in terms of overall effect. And it’s pretty clear that, as a former west coaster, we win the burger wars with In-N-Out.

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