Interview in LAB 04

LAB magazine issue 4After a long hiatus, Joseph Robertson’s excellent LAB magazine is back, and it features an interesting three-way interview he conducted with me and graphic designer Ian Lynam (author/editor of Parallel Strokes) over five years ago. It’s a fun meander through many of my favorite alphabet-related topics. The rest of the magazine is gorgeous and stimulating, as always. You can download the whole thing as a PDF for free, or buy a hard copy via print-on-demand. (I already have two earlier issues, and they’re handsomely bound and printed, well worth the cover price.) Or, just go straight to our interview. Enjoy!

(Previously: Folk Typography essay in LAB 01)


A camera lucida for all my friends!

My old friend Golan Levin and his collaborator Pablo Garcia have updated the camera lucida for the 21st century. Being a big fan of arcane optical devices, I had to have one. But this would be good for anyone who draws from life or is interested in learning to do so. Judging by the breathtaking rate at which this project’s getting backed, you probably have only a few hours to jump in. Back it here!

Mapping the brain’s semantic space

A color-coded map of four dimensions of the semantic space. The branches show "is-a" relationships.
A color-coded map of four dimensions of the semantic space. The branches show “is-a” relationships.

This is one of those moments in science that makes me think I’m so lucky to be alive right now. A team of scientists at UC Berkeley have found a way to map the brain’s representations of objects into a shared semantic space— a multidimensional space in which related things are nearer than unrelated ones. And there’s reason to believe this might be not just a semantic space, but the semantic space: they ran their test on five different people, and found that the first four dimensions of this semantic space were the same for all five subjects–dimensions easily labeled with ideas like moving/stationary, man-made/natural, animate/inanimate, and so on. In other words, the brain’s way of relating different objects might be something we all share at much more than a superficial level. This alone is pretty mind-blowing to me.

As if that weren’t enough, they’ve also created a very cool interactive visualization that shows how all of this plays out on the surface of an actual brain. (That page requires WebGL and a lot of memory, so if you’re reading this on an older device, you might want to just watch the video instead. Actually, you should watch the video anyway, because it’s really well done!)

Go science!

Joshua Foer’s Topophonic Telestereoscope

Science writer, TED talker and all-around interesting fellow Joshua Foer has built himself a device that does for sight and hearing what our Telestereoscope did for sight alone: a Topophonic Telestereoscope. You have to scroll down a bit on his single-page website to find it (apparently Foer doesn’t believe in permalinks) but I assure you there’s nothing but inspiring stuff between here and there, so it’s worth a scroll.

Meanwhile, I’ll be off on one of Foer’s tangents, trying to teach myself Mandarin Chinese.

The Coffee Ring Effect

Why do coffee stains always have a dark ring around the edge? It’s because the water’s surface is curved: it evaporates more quickly near the edges, causing it to flow outward from the middle, carrying coffee particles with it. We cited some early research demonstrating this effect in our 1997 watercolor paper, but now there’s video that actually shows the process happening at a microscopic scale. (Thanks Eric for the link!)

A clue from the distant past!

colored number sticks by otherthings
colored number sticks, a photo by otherthings on Flickr.

While looking at a possible kindergarten for our 4-year-old, I stumbled on a bin full of these colored wooden blocks in one of the classrooms. I remember these blocks from my classroom in 2nd grade. The shortest stick is a cube, and the longest is ten cubes. You can use them to teach arithmetic, by putting them together end to end and seeing how they line up, arranging them into rectangles, and so on.

But what caught my eye was something very different: according to my synesthesia, the first three blocks are all exactly the right colors. In particular, the unit block, being unpainted wood, perfectly captures the tendency of the number 1 to hover between white and yellow in my mind. I have vivid memories of playing with these blocks, assembling them into shapes, in that 2nd grade classroom. Could this be the origin of my synesthetic map? It feels too right to be a total coincidence. And yet, none of the colors from 4 through 10 match my mappings at all.

Apparently the blocks are called Cuisenaire Rods (or rechenstäbchen) and their colors have not changed substantially since the 1950’s. This means that thousands of synesthetic children may be exposed to these blocks during their formative years. I wonder if anyone else had their colors influenced in this way?

Exquisite corpse fold-in pixel art!

I’ve been a fan of Ed Stastny’s work since the early days of the web, when clued me in to the awesome possibilities of massively collaborative, software-guided web art projects. Gridcosm was surprising, disturbing, inspiring, and highly addictive. It was also a big influence on me personally: without that shining example of the weird things a group of total strangers can do together, I may never have come up with the idea to put Graffiti Archaeology on the web.

Now Ed has a wonderful new project in the works, and he needs your help to make it happen. Yono mashes up 8-bit pixel art, the exquisite corpse surrealist parlor game and Mad Magazine’s fold-ins. It picks up where Gridcosm left off, but it takes full advantage of the magical powers of today’s Internet: it will come with its own pixel art painting tool, and will be designed to work on pretty much any device, so the barriers to participation will be far lower, meaning everyone can play.

He’s offering some very cool thank-you gifts on his Kickstarter, and there are only 9 days left! So if this is something you’d like to support, jump in and help, will you?

Cassidy Curtis's splendid display of colorful things.