November 27, 2007
The surreal, sometimes sinister, side of aerial maps
David Montgomery's March 14, 2007 Washington Post Style section front page story about 26-year-old rebel cartographer Nikolas Schiller (above), a character out of a William Gibson novel if ever there was one, lost nothing by hiding under my couch for the past eight months; it follows.
- Here Be Dragons
Through Nikolas Schiller's Eye, Aerial Maps of Familiar Places Become Terra Incognita
He is sly, this rebel cartographer. He makes maps that look like quilts, masks, feathers, acid trips. You can find America in these maps — you can probably find your house in these maps — if you can find the maps at all, since their creator has posted them to an online underground.
Nikolas Schiller, 26, is the god of this alternative reality. Making maps at a frenzied pace of one every two days for the past 1,000 days, he has done everything he could to keep himself off the map of the World Wide Web.
This is brazen defiance of the Hear Me! ethos of the blogger age, for which he probably will be punished and sentenced to fame. He's a shadow blogger who didn't want you to read his, thank you very much. He pulled the electronic blinds on his Web site: He blocked Google and the other search engines. When one of his creations made it onto the Drudge Report — 42,000 hits in no time, baby! — nobody could figure out who was this masked mapmaker.
So here the cyber cipher is now, on the roof of his group rowhouse off U Street NW, conducting another experiment in extreme geography. He recently used discarded chimney bricks to write a message: "No war."
Nothing like making a bold statement that no one will receive except the pigeons and the spy satellites.
Catlike, he hops down a shaky ladder to a third-story balcony on the way to his bedroom. In the hall he passes another one of his statements, this one more artistic, framed on the wall. It's an aerial photographic view of Schiller's neighborhood — and sure enough, there, roughly the size of a fingernail, is the roof of his rowhouse. But something strange has been done to the geography.
Schiller barely pauses on the way to his computer, which he fires up to reveal hundreds of his map creations. They are places you know — the Mall, Adams Morgan, Georgetown, plus other U.S. cities and war-torn ones abroad. But the streetscapes — photographed from above at a resolution fine enough to just make out cars and people — have been warped and woven into kaleidoscopic mosaics, arabesques, spheres.
So Big Brother really is watching — and Schiller remixes this surveilled reality to render geography as politically pointed art. The results have stunned his former geography professors and amazed the federal cartographers who commissioned the original aerial pictures for more mundane purposes, such as aiding developers who are gentrifying neighborhoods, such as, um — U Street!
"To change the world, start with the maps," says Schiller, who is co-chairman of the Statehood Green Party in Washington. "As insignificant as my art may be, it's still an extension of my feeling that each of us has the capacity to change things."
His map quest is for more than just art, let alone directions from here to there. In a way, it's a pixelated riff that hyperlinks to ancient times, when maps implied a worldview — flat or round? — and cartography was existential.
Since Google Earth appeared a few years ago — and countless office hours were wasted as people mouse-clicked to their own back yards ("Lookee, there's the deck!") — the starting point of Schiller's creations has been familiar. But he doesn't use Google. He goes to the source, the bird's-eye rendering of America placed in the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Then it gets complicated. On his computer he will take a swatch of a neighborhood, then he will tessellate it by creating mirrored repetitions, then he may impose radial geometry on the repetitions. The result is elaborate abstraction assembled from realistic detail, ready for framing at 5 by 3 1/2 feet.
"It's just a cool idea," says Dave Roberts, a USGS cartographer. "I've never seen anything like that before."
USGS employs contractors flying airplanes to get the pictures. Some cities were shot in 2005, but the D.C. imagery is circa 2002. Schiller will have to wait for the next flyover in a few years to make a map revealing his rooftop declaration of "No war."
"He's at the cutting edge between cartography, art, visualization... helping people look at the Earth in new ways," says Joseph Kerski, a former USGS cartographer.
"If you come into the geography department, we all have some of his posters hanging in offices," says Lisa Benton-Short, an associate professor at George Washington University, where Schiller was a student. Benton-Short commissioned Schiller's "Central Park Quilt — North" map for the cover of a forthcoming book she is co-authoring, "Nature and the City."
"I think it's kind of an eight-sided snowflake," she says. "If you look carefully, you can see streets and buildings, but you can see a big swath of green.... You get people just staring at his posters, saying, 'Look at that building, I know that building!' " There's a lot of latitude and longitude in the identity of this modern geographer. He is thin and wiry, with long black sideburns. He has a T-shirt that says, "The world is you," in French. On a shelf in his bedroom is a tricorn hat. He wears it as part of his "colonist" costume when he demonstrates for D.C. statehood. He has waited tables and organized seminars for a geographers' association; now he's a Web developer and public-relations consultant. He hopes to publish an atlas. His chief means of transportation, a battered Jamis bicycle, was recently stolen.
To find this mapmaker, you have to know his name, and you have to know where you're going. You can't stumble across his work with a generic keyword search because he coded his Web site, www.nikolasschiller.com, so that Google and other search engines wouldn't automatically index it. Google would turn up his site only if you already knew of his existence and typed in his name.
You can also type into Google "Redacted Name." Click "I'm Feeling Lucky." That will take you to his Web site. Nikolas Schiller is Redacted Name. Statehood, secrecy, online stunts, counter-surveillance: coordinates to explore in the mapmaker's biographical geography. Let's start with the maps. He's made 119 different renderings of D.C. alone.
"Ball of Destruction" shows the Mall and Capitol Hill in the figure of a woman. For security reasons, the feds have obscured photos of the roofs of the White House complex. On Schiller's map, the White House appears to be dangling from the woman's nose like something in need of a tissue. The woman holds a sphere made from satellite imagery of Hurricane Katrina. On the ground before her is a fractured map of the Superdome on the second day of flooding.
Some are meditations on themes such as religion, as in "Cathedral Quilt -- Signed," which shows the Washington National Cathedral neighborhood, upon which Schiller has signed his name repeatedly in Arabic. Many exploit the spacey, soothing rhythm of repeated forms, and imply a dialogue between the real and the imagined, with titles like "DC Lenz #2," "Jefferson Mandala" and "RFK Quilt.""The world is severely out of balance," Schiller says. "These maps I make are an implied reflection of a world more or less at balance."
His maps resist the idea of geography as destiny, but geography was his destiny. His formative map experiences came as a boy from outside St. Louis navigating family vacations with TripTiks. Each summer his mother would rent a car and take Schiller and his two older sisters to a different national park, where the boy would study topographical hiking maps. Growing up in a three-bedroom apartment near neighborhoods of big houses, his family relying on welfare for a period, he tuned into the paradoxes of geographic proximity and social inequity. GWU offered him the most scholarship money.
Like so many transplants, he became outraged by D.C.'s disenfranchisement. "Nikolas looks better in a Colonial outfit and a tricorner hat than practically anyone I know," says Timothy Cooper, a statehood activist. Schiller is also the movement's cartographer, sitting in Freedom Plaza with a laptop displaying aerial maps to plot protest locations.
His most famous map was for another cause. He posted an interactive map of the parade route for President Bush's second inauguration. Designed to help people "coordinate your plans," with a nod and a wink to protesters, it presented everything from access points to webcams showing live pictures of downtown Washington. The Drudge Report caught wind and posted a link. Schiller got 42,155 unique visitors in 28 days — some of whom posted comments accusing the anonymous creator of "treason."
He had made a separate, anonymous Web site to host the inaugural map. Yet he could tell who his visitors were, or at least where they came from, by studying site statistics compiled from the Internet Protocol addresses of computers that called up the map, a trail that is automatically logged by most Web servers. He got nearly 200 hits from computers with .mil addresses — the military; about 120 from Treas.gov, where the Secret Service resides; 27 from The Washington Post and 23 from the New York Times. In other words, he found himself watching the watchers. So began a new cartographic exploration, a study of the virtual landscape of the Internet. He posted maps and blog entries on his main Web site, yet he blocked access by the search engines and leaked his address only to friends on MySpace and people he met along the way. He had 1,000 business cards printed 1,000 days ago, and handed them out with his e-mail address to see who would follow the electronic trail back to him.
Neat, but — why?
"It's about how information flows from A to B," Schiller says. "You can float out balloons and see if someone pops them or picks them up."
By selectively granting access and watching the results, Schiller created a virtual country within the borderless Internet, populated by friends, fans, activists and map freaks. He averages about 140 unique visits a month.
Every so often he makes discreet forays into the public — posts a link on a local blog or e-mail list; enters an art contest. Then he will track the subsequent increased traffic to his site, watching what pages and what maps people open, observing the routes they take to find him.
One recent morning, he sits at his computer to check the previous day's traffic. The first visitor arrived via his MySpace page at 12:21 a.m. At 9:46 a.m., someone from a Pfizer Pharmaceutical address reached his site through the Statehood Green Party Web page. At 5:59 p.m., someone from Istanbul checked in.
On a recent evening, venturing from his third-floor lair to visit the corner of 14th and T streets, he mulls his next move.
Fourteenth and T is one of the few places outside the GWU Geography Department where you can see Schiller's work without a computer. Here, fixed to a broken signpost, is a rectangular scrap of wood. On the wood is a faded map. It's an aerial view of the neighborhood. An arrow calls your attention to an intersection. There's a caption:
"You are here."
He's thinking about removing the "robots exclusion protocol" that blocks Google and the others. Going public would add a new phase to the experiment, he says. He'd see how the geography of his controlled community is changed by the chaos of publicity. Or maybe not. Imagine coming out of hiding and no one notices. "The null hypothesis is the Web site remains obscure," he says, in the streetlight gloom of 14th and T.
More hopefully, he says, "Most likely, I will change and the nature of this Web site will change." The usually understated Schiller can't conceal his pride when he speaks of his "body of work," the 500 maps created in obscurity. He'd like people to see them. He'd also like to sell some maps.
"I'm interested in seeing other people's opinions," he says. "Will people blog about it? Will I be made fun of?"
For a minute, in the dark on the way back to the rowhouse, it's as if he's the one on the verge of being found by explorers with maps. Mr. Schiller, we presume?
He is there.
Then he returns to his computer.
World's lightest rolling carry-on
From the website:
- Worlds Lightest Rolling Carry-On
This is the world's lightest carry-on.
It only weighs 5.5 lbs., and when its weight is spread across its 44" combined dimensions (just 1" below the 45" carry-on limit imposed by most airlines), it has a weight-per-cubic-inch ratio of 0.0019 lbs./cubic inch, unmatched by any other carry-on in the world.
Made from a high-density 2.6 mm thick ABS/polycarbonate composite that provides superior impact protection over fabric, the durable scratch-resistant shell has a compressive strength that can withstand 250 lb./ft. of force before suffering a dent.
Both halves of the protective shell are closed with an interlocking seal for maximum waterproofing and secured by a durable ABS zipper that will not corrode.
The generous 2,940 cubic inch interior is lined with 420-denier nylon and has a built-in divider with a mesh pocket.
It rolls on stainless steel ball bearing wheels trimmed covered by in-line skate wheel rubber, so they will not corrode from exposure to rain, snow or salt during prolonged travel.
An 18" telescoping aluminum handle with a soft rubber grip locks in place during transport and stows during storage at the touch of a button.
20"L x 14"W x 10"H.
Silver or Black.
'Provoking Magic: Lighting of Ingo Maurer'
It's at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (5th Avenue at 91st St.; 212-849-8400).
From the website:
- Affirmation Ball
Sometimes life is kind of rough.
Why wait for some kind soul to give you the praise you deserve?
Just have our yellow 3-3/4" plastic Affirmation Ball handy next time you're feeling blue.
Hold the viewing window level and a cheery thought or compliment will rise to the top.
You don't even have to ask a question (don't you work hard enough already?).
The happy face on the back will be smiling at you as you turn the ball for the next encouraging remark, such as "Your breath is so minty" or "You look marvelous."
The perfect gift for encouraging the insecure or delighting the narcissistic! In a happy illustrated box.
The rise of DNA hacking — Bioterror and 'bioerror'
It's happening as you read these words.
You won't read about these new hacks, though — you'll inhale them.
Andrew Pollack's September 12, 2007 New York Times story (which follows), about the rise of DNA foundries, producing made-to-order genes for sale over the Internet to anyone with a valid credit card and a "reputable" institutional email address, touched on the new new thing for those with a bent for going where most of us, for one reason or another, never venture.
- How Do You Like Your Genes? Biofabs Take Orders
Industrial age foundries made cast-metal parts. Information age foundries, or “fabs,” produce computer chips. Now come foundries for the biotechnology age, churning out the stuff of life itself.
Such “biofabs” produce made-to-order genes, the stretches of DNA that contain the instructions for living creatures. The foundries take orders over the Internet from pharmaceutical companies or academic scientists and ship back the finished genes in as little as a week or two. The genes can be used to genetically engineer bacteria or other cells to make proteins, or in various types of biological research.
Sales of the gene-synthesis industry are estimated at only $50 million a year, but they are growing rapidly. One foundry, GeneArt, in Regensburg, Germany, has gone public. It says it expects sales this year to increase at least 60 percent, to 12.5 million euros, or about $17 million.
Fueling the surge is the productivity of DNA synthesis, which has increased 700-fold in the last decade, according to Bio Economic Research Associates, a consulting firm. The cost per base pair, the basic chemical unit of a DNA molecule, has dropped to less than $1, from about $30.
The ability to make genes has given rise to a field called synthetic biology, which might lead to artificial life in a few years. For now, though, most of the biofabs’ business is coming from transforming the practice of 30-year-old “conventional” genetic engineering.
“The prices have come down to the point where it is less expensive for many researchers to have a gene synthesized than to make the equivalent molecule themselves,” said John Mulligan, chairman and chief scientist at Blue Heron Biotechnology, a gene-synthesis company in Bothell, Wash.
Genetic engineers generally extract a gene from an organism. Then they might modify it or put it in a different organism. The gene for insulin, for instance, can be extracted from human cells and put into bacteria, which will produce insulin for use by diabetics. It is a cut-and-paste operation, like writing a phrase by snipping the necessary words out of magazines and gluing them together in the proper order.
Gene synthesis, by contrast, is like typing the phrase on a word processor. Scientists specify the sequence of the desired gene and have it “printed” at the foundry. They can do this because the complete genome sequences of humans and many other species are available in databases.
Peter Kuhn, an associate professor at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, has been studying the proteins made by the virus that causes SARS, which killed nearly 800 people in 2003.
Before the introduction of gene synthesis, Mr. Kuhn had to isolate the genes from the virus itself, then put them into bacteria to have them produce the proteins. Now he orders the genes from DNA2.0, a foundry.
“If we were starting this today, I wouldn’t even bother trying to get any of this from the natural source,” Mr. Kuhn said. “I would just order everything.”
DNA is made up of four chemical units called bases, usually represented by the letters A, C, G and T. The bases are paired to form the rungs of the twisted ladder structure of DNA.
The first mail-order DNA companies sprung up about two decades ago, selling short, single-stranded pieces of DNA, usually 20 bases to 60 bases long. These strands, called oligonucleotides, or oligos, are used to help find and amplify full genes.
Sales of DNA oligos are about $700 million a year, according to BioInformatics, a market research firm, though some executives say that figure is too high. Production is automated and competition is cutthroat, with prices of 10 cents to 50 cents a base.
Customers “want to have it delivered to them the next day and they really don’t want to pay much for this custom service,” said Mary Buchanan, a business manager at Invitrogen, a leading supplier of oligos. Other major participants include Integrated DNA Technologies and Operon Biotechnologies.
The newer biofabs make complete double-stranded genes, usually hundreds to about 2,000 base pairs long, though in a few cases, longer than 10,000. Leaders in this business include GeneArt, Blue Heron, DNA2.0, which is in Menlo Park, Calif., and Codon Devices of Cambridge, Mass.
Customers usually place orders — a sequence of hundreds of As, Cs, Gs and Ts — through a biofab’s Web site or by e-mail. “It’s really not possible to take an order like that over the phone or even by fax,” said Jeremy Minshull, president of DNA2.0.
Manufacturing is a prime example of what is called mass customization, highly automated production with every single product being different.
The machines that string together bases make so many mistakes that they cannot make a full gene flawlessly. So the companies make shorter oligos and splice them together. Error checking is crucial.
A new opportunity for foundries could come from synthetic biology, which involves designing cells almost from scratch to perform specific tasks, like producing biofuel. Synthetic biologists envision writing the DNA code for such cells the way computer programmers write software. Then the DNA would be manufactured and put into cells.
Ultimately, it might be possible to create artificial life. The scientist J. Craig Venter is trying to do that by synthesizing the 580,076-base genome of a simple bacterium, which would be inserted into some other bacterium.
Some biofabs are distancing themselves from such talk, fearing it could arouse public distrust. “We are not in the business at Codon of creating life,” said John P. Danner, president of Codon Devices.
There is concern that DNA synthesis might be used to make pathogens. In 2002, scientists at Stony Brook University announced that they had synthesized the polio virus, using its published genome sequence and mail-order oligos. It took them three years, but a sequence that long, 7,500 bases, can now be made in weeks.
The foundries say they screen orders against a database of pathogen DNA sequences and verify that customers are from reputable institutions. The leading companies have formed a consortium to write other safeguards and regulations.
But critics say governments should devise the regulations. ETC Group, a technology watchdog, said that regulations were needed to prevent ill-advised or careless applications, not just nefarious ones.
“The danger is not just bioterror,” ETC said in a report earlier this year, “but ‘bioerror.’”
The video up top alone is worth what you paid for this post.
'Use Your Illusion' Wine Glasses
From the website:
- Illusion Wine Glasses
Bewitching and clever, these modern glasses will give any beverage an unexpected twist of whimsy.
Combining inventive design with delightful execution, the wine goblet fills entirely with liquid and seems to float within the surrounding glass, which remains empty.
3"W x 6"H; 8 oz.
Set of four.
* What would Axl say?
World's largest swimming pool
Pictured above, it's located in Algarabbo, Chile, about 70 miles west of Santiago.
Andrew Blum wrote about it in the November, 2007 issue of Wired magazine, as follows.
- Swim Laps in Your Own Private Ocean — With an Ocean View
Olympic-size is for plebs. Thanks to advanced hydrotechnology, swimmers can paddle in a private ocean — like this $3.5 million, 20-acre, half-mile-long, 66-million-gallon leviathan recently certified by Guinness as the largest pool in the world. Located in Algarrobo, Chile, about 70 miles west of Santiago and just yards from the Pacific, the pool at the San Alfonso del Mar condo complex handles water treatment like a surgical strike. While most pools filter all the water several times a day, the San Alfonso's 150 in-wall sensors focus the cleanup only on the dirty bits. Fernando Fischmann, developer of this "pulse oxidation" system, is cagey about specifics, but he says it uses at least 10 times less chemicals per gallon than conventional setups, at a 50th of the cost. Also helping to keep the water clear are a nonstick plastic liner and the immense volume of the pool itself, which dilutes the concentration of any contaminants. Do Fischmann's claims hold water? According to Ralph Keller, an expert in industrial hygiene, the principles are sound — for the short term. "For the first few years," he says, "it may just be the size of the pool that's keeping it clean." In the meantime, Fischmann's company, Crystal Lagoons, has been tapped to install half a dozen more super pools for some big backyards in Argentina, Panama, and — of course — Dubai.
Cycloc Bike Rack
By Briitsh designer Andrew Lang.
Great product name, too.
Cycloc — Store Your Bike With Style
Strongly constructed from twin wall plastic, Cycloc is a wall-mounted unit with a unique shape, for storing your bike and associated accessories.
The matching insert panel neatly conceals the fixings.
Green, White, Orange or Black.
Many more photos here.
Direct from the designer: £59.95.