The Tower of Babel 2008: Burj Dubai

Remakes are all the rage in Hollywood, and what better original material is there than the Old Testament?

If you are not familiar with the Burj Dubai, it’s the tallest building in the world, and the construction isn’t even finished yet.  It currently stands about 2,275 feet tall, but they are keeping the final height a secret.  Some rumors state that the final height will actually be over 940m (about 3,055 feet, for US types).

Here is what it is supposed to look like when it is done:

Last week, I caught this article in Gizmodo, and it had this great picture in it:

It seems that, like the story of the Tower of Babel, recently the building reached heights that interfered with the functioning of the construction site walkie talkies.  Literally, they built a building so high that they could no longer communicate.

When the unbelievable Burj Dubai started to get really high, the construction workers discovered one problem that seems obvious now: their walkie-talkies stopped working as they climbed the structure. The reason was simple: distance. At the beginning of the construction they used walkie-talkies—which are light, durable, and have a long battery life—across the site.

Not to get too biblical, but a quick synopsis of the original story:

According to the narrative in Genesis Chapter 11 of the Bible, the Tower of Babel was a tower built by a united humanity in order to reach the heavens. To prevent the project from succeeding, God confused their languages so that each spoke a different language. They could no longer communicate with one another and the work could not proceed. After that time, people moved away to different parts of Earth. The story is used to explain the existence of many different languages and races.

Interesting to consider… if just for a moment. Fortunately, there is a happy ending for the Burj Dubai:

Fortunately for them, they turned to mesh networks, which are similar to the ones used in mobiles, but local. For that they used a company called Firetide, using several Wi-Fi-enabled VoIP phones over a HotPort wireless mesh, which also serves as the transport for the security video in the site.

Gotta love technology.

By the way, the Wikipedia page on the world’s tallest buildings is really, really fun to explore.

Understanding the Nature of Glass

This is from over a month ago, but there was a wonderful article for all the closet material scientists out there in the New York Times on Glass a few weeks ago.

Here is an except:

It is well known that panes of stained glass in old European churches are thicker at the bottom because glass is a slow-moving liquid that flows downward over centuries.

Well known, but wrong. Medieval stained glass makers were simply unable to make perfectly flat panes, and the windows were just as unevenly thick when new.

The tale contains a grain of truth about glass resembling a liquid, however. The arrangement of atoms and molecules in glass is indistinguishable from that of a liquid. But how can a liquid be as strikingly hard as glass?

“They’re the thickest and gooiest of liquids and the most disordered and structureless of rigid solids,” said Peter Harrowell, a professor of chemistry at the University of Sydney in Australia, speaking of glasses, which can be formed from different raw materials. “They sit right at this really profound sort of puzzle.”

It’s a great article, and a wonderful exploration of an area of material science that most people assume they know more about than they do.

New York Times: The Nature of Glass Remains Anything But Clear


The Self Organizing Quantum Universe

I’m a big fan of distributed systems – complex networks of an extremely large number of independent entities governed by simple and transparent rules.  Not surprising, really, that I work professionally on next-generation products and services based on the Internet, one of the most successful man-made distributed systems in existence.

As a result, it’s not surprising that I found this article in the latest issue of Scientific American compelling:

Scientific American: Using Causality to Solve the Puzzle of Quantum Spacetime
A new approach to the decades-old problem of quantum gravity goes back to basics and shows how the building blocks of space and time pull themselves together
By Jerzy Jurkiewicz, Renate Loll and Jan Ambjorn

Here is a quick synopsis:

  • Quantum theory and Einstein’s general theory of relativity are famously at loggerheads. Physicists have long tried to reconcile them in a theory of quantum gravity—with only limited success.
  • A new approach introduces no exotic components but rather provides a novel way to apply existing laws to individual motes of spacetime. The motes fall into place of their own accord, like molecules in a crystal.
  • This approach shows how four-dimensional spacetime as we know it can emerge dynamically from more basic ingredients. It also suggests that spacetime shades from a smooth arena to a funky fractal on small scales.

I’ve been following modern cosmology theory fairly closely for the past 15 years, and I found this approach compelling and refreshing in a number of ways.  It may not be an effective path towards resolving theories around quantum gravity, but there are clear reasons to give it due consideration:

  • The modeling techniques will be extremely familiar to anyone with an advanced background in modern computer graphics approaches and theory.
  • The idea that a few simple assumptions will self-aggregate into the universe that we see around us avoids the never-satisfying anthropic principle fallback.  (The anthropic principle is effectively a circular argument that says, “Well, the universe is this way because if it wasn’t this way, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.”   It’s about as intellectually satisfying as the movie 10,000 BC.
  • The simplicity of the model scores favorably with Occam’s Razor vs. other competing theories of quantum gravity and string theory.
  • The model is based on the insight that causality (related to the 2nd law of thermodynamics) is a fundamental principle of our universe.

That last bullet was particularly compelling for me, since the idea that time is a dimension with equal fluidity to the spacial dimensions has always conflicted philisophically with the concept that entropy must always increase.  It’s the reason why almost every form of time travel breaks the accounting for mass/energy.

Anyway, read it and let me know what you think.  I had someone at work tease me just last month about reading Scientific American, comparing it to Popular Science.  Personally, I find that articles like this continue to justify my subscription dollars.

I May Have Stepped into a Parallel Universe around 2000

I’ve had the growing realization over the past few years that something may be amiss with the universe.  As a fan of the various modern theories of quantum cosmology, it’s occurred to me that I may have accidentally ended up jumping out of the theoretical universe of maximum probability into another quantum variant.

I think the news that Apple sold 1 million iPhones in 3 days and is now the Number 3 PC Maker in the United States confirmed this for me.  As an Apple user since the early 1980s and a former employee, it’s just too hard to believe that the universe of maximum probability includes Apple’s exponential success in the past five years.

Honestly, doesn’t it seem like the most likely future for the computer industry in the 1990s was Bill Gates launching a mobile computer with sales of 1 million units in 3 days, and Steve Jobs taking a full time role in philanthropy?

Think about it.  I’m guessing the date of cross over was sometime in 2000, right around the time where Apple launched an MP3 player that cost around 300% more than the average player, and yet achieved over 70% market share in just 2 years.

The question is… what other improbable events exist in this variant of the universe?

New Evidence That Neanderthals Did Not Interbreed with Humans

Very interesting blog post on The Spitoon, the blog of 23andMe, the hip Google-backed, personal genetics company.

A quick excerpt:

The place of Neanderthals in the story of human evolution has been hotly debated for decades.  A distant cousin to our species, Neanderthals had already been in Europe over 250,000 years when Homo sapiens first arrived there 35,000 years ago.

Often called Cro-Magnoids, these first Europeans are believed by many scientists to have out-competed the Neanderthals, gradually driving them to extinction. The alternative theory, that Neanderthals and early humans are more closely related and may have even interbred upon meeting, is less popular, though it hasn’t yet been ruled out.  In order to resolve this debate, scientists have turned to genetics and methods of ancient DNA analysis to help them answer the questions surrounding the relationships between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnoids.

Basically, the evidence shows no contribution from Neanderthal DNA to either 28,000 year-old or modern European genetics, making the premise for Neanderthal interbreeding extremely weak.

Neat stuff if you are into either genetics or the evolution of human beings.

Full article is here.

Mandlebrot Set Music Video

This is too good not to share, from the same artist who wrote my previous blog favorite, Code Monkey.

This one is called Mandlebrot Set, but the key line, at around 2:05, is “A Bad Ass Fucking Fractal”.  Yes, this is now a PG-13 blog post.

The most interesting thing about Jonathan Coulton‘s work is that he releases his music under the Creative Commons license.  Anyone is free to take it and make music videos from it, as we saw with Code Monkey.

Anyway, check it out.  It’s definitely a keeper for anyone who grew up mathematically in the 80s and appreciates the intricacies of Mandlebrot, complexity & fractals.


Correlation or Causality: Starbucks & Obama

This one was too good not to share.  See below for a graph mapping out the correlation between the number of Starbucks and the margin of victory/defeat for Obama vs. Clinton.  From the Urbanspoon:

Is there really a connection between sipping your double tall breve and voting for Obama? We’ll leave political analysis to the professionals, but this is the kind of food question we’re equipped to investigate. Unfortunately, we can’t directly measure how much latte everyone is drinking. But as an approximation, we looked at the number of Starbucks stores per capita on a state-by-state basis. Compare this to how states voted in the primary:

The blue line measures the percentage by which Obama beat (or lost to) Clinton. The green dots represent the number of Starbucks stores per million people for each state. The black line is the trend line of Starbucks stores, drawn to make it easier to see the relationship between voting and latte sipping.

Love it.  Thanks to Paul Kedrosky for the pointer.