Archive for April, 2015

When any given technology reaches maturity, one might think that it’s time perhaps to stop innovating. A familiar, reliable example is the codex, also known as the book, now many centuries old and an obvious improvement over clay tablets and paper scrolls. Its low cost and sheer utility have yet to be surpassed. Yet damn it all if we don’t have inferior alternatives being shoved down our throats all the time, accompanied ad naseum by the marketers’ eternal siren song: “new and improved.” Never mind that novelty or improvement wasn’t even slightly needed. A more modern example might be Microsoft Word 5.1, dating from 1992, which dinosaurs like me remember fondly for its elegance and ease of use. More than 20 years later, Microsoft Office (including MS Word) is widely considered to be bloatware, which is to say, it’s gone backwards from its early maturity.

So imagine my consternation when yet another entirely mature technology, one near and dear to the hearts of music lovers (those with taste, anyway), received another obligatory attempt at an update. Behold the preposterous, ridiculous, 3D-printed, 2-string, piezoelectric violin designed by Monad Studio:

Someone teach the poor model, chosen for her midriff no doubt, how to hold the bow! The view from the opposite side offers no improvement: (more…)

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The comic below alerted me some time ago to the existence of Vaclav Smil, whose professional activity includes nothing less than inventorying the planet’s flora and fauna.

Although the comic (more infographic, really, since it’s not especially humorous) references Smil’s book The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change (2003), I picked up instead Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature (2013), which has a somewhat more provocative title. Smil observes early in the book that mankind has had a profound, some would even say geological, impact on the planet:

Human harvesting of the biosphere has transformed landscapes on vast scales, altered the radiative properties of the planet, impoverished as well as improved soils, reduced biodiversity as it exterminated many species and drove others to a marginal existence, affected water supply and nutrient cycling, released trace gases and particulates into the atmosphere, and played an important role in climate change. These harvests started with our hominin ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago, intensified during the era of Pleistocene hunters, assumed entirely new forms with the adoption of sedentary life ways, and during the past two centuries transformed into global endeavors of unprecedented scale and intensity. [p. 3]

Smil’s work is essentially a gargantuan accounting task: measuring the largest possible amounts of biological material (biomass) in both their current state and then across millennia of history in order to observe and plot trends. In doing so, Smil admits that accounts are based on far-from-perfect estimates and contain wide margins of error. Some of the difficulty owes to lack of methodological consensus among scientists involved in these endeavors as to what counts, how certain entries should be categorized, and what units of measure are best. For instance, since biomass contains considerable amounts of water (percentages vary by type of organism), inventories are often expressed in terms of fresh or live weight (phytomass and zoomass, respectively) but then converted to dry weight and converted again to biomass carbon.

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