Each night, Walmart’s parking lots turn into America’s largest campground


Walmart Camping

Walmart is an example of a commercial third place…a place people go to socialize that isn’t home or the workplace. But like Starbucks and McDonald’s, Walmart also functions as a replacement home for some people. Across America, Walmart parking lots fill up with the vans, RVs, and cars of nomads, vacationers, and the homeless. The NY Times sent a pair of photographers out to capture some of these parking lots at night.

There are standards of etiquette — do not, for instance, sit in the parking lot in lawn chairs — and also online rosters of no-go Walmarts. There is an expectation that you should buy something, but there is no parking fee. There is a measure of solitary privacy, even in a place that is deliberately accessible. Still that doesn’t prevent some people from leaving skid marks in the parking lot.

El Monte RV provides a short guide to Walmart camping and Allstays has a list of Walmarts that allow overnight parking.

Tags: photography   Walmart

The first asteroid from outside our solar system pays us a visit


Asteroid Oumuamua

Back in October, the solar system welcomed a visitor from interstellar space…the first interstellar asteroid ever detected.

Astronomers have confirmed that an object that recently passed by our planet is from outside our Solar System — the first interstellar asteroid that’s ever been observed. And it doesn’t look like any object we’ve ever seen in our cosmic neighborhood before.

Follow-up observations, detailed today in Nature, have found that the asteroid is dark and reddish, similar to the objects in the outer Solar System. It doesn’t have any gas or dust surrounding it, like comets do, and it’s stretched long and skinny, looking a bit like an oddly shaped pen. It’s thought to be about a quarter-mile long, and about 10 times longer than it is wide. That makes it unlike any asteroids seen in our Solar System, none of which are so elongated.

Here’s a video of the asteroid’s path through the solar system:

Um, folks…that looks like a rocket. How do we know this “asteroid” isn’t actually an ancient alien ship that’s become encrusted with rock over millions of years? Or an ancient weapon gone awry? We’ve all seen the first Star Trek movie, right? (I am only a little bit kidding about this.)

Tags: astronomy   science   space   video

An AI makes up new Star Trek episode titles


Star Trek Ai Titles

Dan Hon, who you may remember trained a neural network to make up British placenames, has now done the same thing with Star Trek. He fed all the episode titles for a bunch of Treks (TOS, DS9, TNG, etc.) into a very primitive version of Commander Data’s brain and out came some brand new episode titles, including:

Darmok Distant (TNG)
The Killing of the Battle of Khan (TOS)
The Omega Mind (Enterprise)
The Empath of Fire (TNG)
Distance of the Prophets (DS9)
The Children Command (TNG)
Sing of Ferengi (Voyager)

Spock, Q, and mirrors are also heavily featured in episode titles.

Tags: artificial intelligence   Dan Hon   language   Star Trek   TV

Classical music scores as colorful data visualizations


Off The Staff

Off The Staff

Nicholas Rougeux, who describes himself as a “designer, data geek, fractal nut”, designed a process to turn musical scores into ultra-colorful images. He outlined his process here.

Rougeux also made video versions where you can see the visualizations form as the songs play. Here’s Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons:

Posters are available.

Tags: infoviz   music   Nicholas Rougeux   video

The Periodic Table of Endangered Elements


Periodic Table Endangered

Until recently, humanity has treated the Earth as an infinite resource. As the Earth’s population has exploded over the past century however, we’ve learned in many different ways that that’s untrue. We’ve overfished the ocean, pumped too much carbon into the atmosphere and oceans, driven thousands of species into extinction, and terraformed much of the planet’s land. This periodic table produced by the American Chemical Society shows that there are also 44 chemical elements that will face supply limitations in the coming decades. Among those under a “serious threat in the next 100 years” are silver, helium, zinc, and gallium. Robert Silverberg wrote about The Death of Gallium back in 2008:

Gallium’s atomic number is 31. It’s a blue-white metal first discovered in 1831, and has certain unusual properties, like a very low melting point and an unwillingness to oxidize, that make it useful as a coating for optical mirrors, a liquid seal in strongly heated apparatus, and a substitute for mercury in ultraviolet lamps. It’s also quite important in making the liquid-crystal displays used in flat-screen television sets and computer monitors.

As it happens, we are building a lot of flat-screen TV sets and computer monitors these days. Gallium is thought to make up 0.0015 percent of the Earth’s crust and there are no concentrated supplies of it. We get it by extracting it from zinc or aluminum ore or by smelting the dust of furnace flues. Dr. Reller says that by 2017 or so there’ll be none left to use. Indium, another endangered element-number 49 in the periodic table-is similar to gallium in many ways, has many of the same uses (plus some others-it’s a gasoline additive, for example, and a component of the control rods used in nuclear reactors) and is being consumed much faster than we are finding it. Dr. Reller gives it about another decade. Hafnium, element 72, is in only slightly better shape. There aren’t any hafnium mines around; it lurks hidden in minute quantities in minerals that contain zirconium, from which it is extracted by a complicated process that would take me three or four pages to explain. We use a lot of it in computer chips and, like indium, in the control rods of nuclear reactors, but the problem is that we don’t have a lot of it. Dr. Reller thinks it’ll be gone somewhere around 2017. Even zinc, commonplace old zinc that is alloyed with copper to make brass, and which the United States used for ordinary one-cent coins when copper was in short supply in World War II, has a Reller extinction date of 2037. (How does a novel called The Death of Brass grab you?)

Zinc was never rare. We mine millions of tons a year of it. But the supply is finite and the demand is infinite, and that’s bad news. Even copper, as I noted above, is deemed to be at risk. We humans move to and fro upon the earth, gobbling up everything in sight, and some things aren’t replaceable.

As with many such predictions, the 2017 dates didn’t pan out, but the point that these resources are finite still holds. Eventually, we will run out.

Tags: periodic table   Robert Silverberg

The global exercise heatmap


Strava Heatmap

Strava Heatmap

Strava, makers of apps that allow people to track and share their athletic activities, have released a global heatmap, a visualization of the humanity’s collective athletic activities. In a recent blog post, the company highlighted some of the most interesting spots on the map, which was created using 27 billion miles of data representing over 200,000 years of hiking, biking, running, skiing, and other sporting activity. Pictured above are the ski areas near Salt Lake City and kiteboarding in Baja, Mexico.

Tags: infoviz   maps   sports   Strava

Cutaway illustration of a film camera reveals iconic movie scenes


Directors Cut

This might be Dorothy’s best print yet: a cutaway view of the Arriflex 35 IIC camera used extensively by directors like Stanley Kubrick but the guts of the camera has been replaced with some of the most iconic movies scenes of all time. The full print contains 60 scenes, but even in the small excerpt above, you can see The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Strangelove, The Empire Strikes Back, Forrest Gump, and The Godfather.

Tags: art   illustration   movies

How today’s animals would look if drawn like dinosaurs


It’s difficult to know how a particular animal might have looked if you only use its skeleton as a guide. For example, we used to think dinosaurs were mostly scaly like lizards until evidence was uncovered that many kinds of dinosaur were more birdlike with feathers.

Artist C.M. Kosemen, in his book All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, illustrated some present-day animals like many dinosaurs are typically drawn, based only on their skeletons.

Most serious paleoart bases itself on the detailed findings of paleontologists, who can work for weeks or even years compiling the most accurate descriptions of ancient life they can, based on fossil remains. But Kosemen says that many dinosaur illustrations should take more cues from animals living today. Our world is full of unique animals that have squat fatty bodies, with all kinds of soft tissue features that are unlikely to have survived in fossils, such as pouches, wattles, or skin flaps. “There could even be forms that no one has imagined,” says Kosemen. “For example there could plant-eating dinosaurs that had pangolin or armadillo-like armor that wasn’t preserved in the fossil. There could also be dinosaurs with porcupine-type quills.”

Here are Kosemen’s drawings of a baboon and swans:

Kosemen Dinosaur

Kosemen Dinosaur

Tags: C.M. Kosemen   dinosaurs