Wednesday, October 28, 2009


breve is a free/open-source 3d environment for multi-agent simulations and artificial life, which can be used to simulate things like BZ reactions, evolution by natural selection, and the flocking patterns of birds (which by the way is a good example of how realistic behavior can be produced using a drastically simplified model).

Also on the site is the breveCreatures screensaver, a simple simulation of evolution by selective pressure which you can download on its own. Creatures are initiated as random configurations of moving blocks, and selected through successive generations for the most effective walking behavior. The video below shows the products of some other evolution processes in breve:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Kadykchan, Russia -- the Phantom City

Kadykchan is a Russian city located way the hell up in the Siberian peninsula, where the winter air temperature could drop below -40 degrees Celsius. In spite of these conditions, the city had a population of around 10,000 in 1986, when it was a tin-mining town for the Soviet Union. But when a pipe burst in the city's central boiler house, the whole city lost heat and everyone quickly evacuated-- and between this and the decline of its tin mines after the fall of the USSR, Kadykchan never recovered. As of 2008 the population was estimated to be less than 300 people; the city is still full of the abandoned possessions of those who fled.

For more photos, see this post on the impressive Russian blog Brusnichka, which seems to be dedicated largely to exploring and photographing abandoned bits of Russia (and there's even more up on English Russia). I linked Brusnichka's photos from an abandoned Russian army neuroscience lab here almost a year ago (my second post here, in fact) but never thought to explore the site in more depth. Like most of Russia, the site now seems to be abandoned-- but what remains of the content is beautiful. I like this this and this for starters.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Vladislav Delay -- Lumi

Good stuff. The video reminds me a bit of David ORielly's work, I like how the old mechanical quirks of early CG (flickering landscapes, stark textures, rigid movement, low polygon counts) are now being used aesthetically-- like impressionist painters intentionally using visible brush strokes, turning a flaw of their medium into a feature of their work.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction

And speaking of oscillations, here's a nice video of the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction in a petri dish:

(The video info for the above also has a nice description of waveforms in the brain which is worth reading.) You can see someone setting up the reaction (ie pouring some chemicals together and stirring, really) here.

The BZ reaction is an example of a chemical oscillator, a system which instead of arriving at a steady state transitions between two different chemical states (which two states have two different colors, whence the waves above). Boris Belousov discovered it in the 1950's when he happened to mix together potassium bromate, cerium(IV) sulfate, propanedioic acid and citric acid in dilute sulfuric acid (hell, why not?); he made two attempts to publish his findings, but was rejected from peer-reviewed journals because he couldn't explain why the oscillations occurred.

Steven Strogatz's Sync

Steven Strogatz's wonderful book Sync discusses how synchrony in biological networks is not only common, but neigh-inevitable. His opening discussion of fireflies is particularly vivid: along some riverbanks in Southeast Asia, populations of fireflies stretching for miles will all flash in synchrony, a phenomenon which baffled western explorers for decades. It turns out the effect is easy to replicate in a model-- say you have a collection of periodic oscillators which fire a burst of light at their peak and then reset, you can achieve synchrony if you make it so that each oscillator, when it fires, bumps its neighbors forward a bit in their cycles. Because firing induces a forced reset of the cycle, oscillators will be pushed forward in their cycles until they fall into sync, and then stay locked there; this effect takes off in small groups and quickly grows until the entire network is firing together.

The important points here being that a) neurons do this too (in fact it can be hard to get spiking neural networks to stop doing this) and it's really probably important to coding somehow, and b) you guys, fireflies are totally attempting to form some sort of massive insect-based consciousness here.

You can read more on the subject in the preview of the first chapter and a half, posted on Google Books.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Urban Speculation Links

Been reading a bit lately on urban architecture and design, which turns out to be a much more active field than I'd have expected. The work I've read comes from an interesting perspective-- there's the creative mindset of art and design students (which also lends itself to an unfortunate affinity for lovely but impractical concept art), mixed with a love of new technology, and an interest in complex city infrastructure and human culture, particularly the way cultural boundaries develop and shift over time and the way behavior is controlled by environment.

While there are certainly some fun ideas floating around, the focus is more on these concepts than their realization, and as such things can get pie-in-the-sky fairly quickly. But if you keep this in mind it can be interesting reading, and it will at the very least introduce to you a new way of thinking about the way we shape and are shaped by our surroundings.

Some introductory links:
May have to post in more detail on some of these in the future. Fun times!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Population dynamics in Yemen

From the beginning of T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom comes an account of how population and cultural forces drove human geography in early 20th-century Yemen. I have no idea how realistic this account is, but as an engineer I think it's kind of inspiring to see this kind of systems-minded analysis used to describe complex human behavior-- and so poetically, at that.

In Yemen the solution was different. There was no foreign trade, and no massed industries to accumulate population in unhealthy places. The towns were just market towns, as clean and simple as ordinary villages. Therefore the population slowly increased; the scale of living was brought down very low; and a congestion of numbers was generally felt. They could not emigrate overseas; for the Sudan was even worse country than Arabia, and the few tribes which did venture across were compelled to modify their manner of life and their Semitic culture profoundly, in order to exist. They could not move northward along the hills; for these were barred by the holy town of Mecca and its port Jidda: an alien belt, continually reinforced by strangers from India and Java and Bokhara and Africa, very strong in vitality, violently hostile to the Semitic consciousness, and maintained despite economics and geography and climate by the artificial factor of a world-religion. The congestion of Yemen, therefore, becoming extreme, found its only relief in the east, by forcing the weaker aggregations of its border down and down the slopes of the hills along the Widian, the half-waste district of the great water-bearing valleys of Bisha, Dawasir, Ranya and Taraba which ran out towards the deserts of Nejd. These weaker clans had continually to exchange good springs and fertile palms for poorer springs and scantier palms, till at last they reached an area where a proper agricultural life became impossible. They then began to eke out their precarious husbandry by breeding sheep and camels, and in time came to depend more and more on these herds for their living.
Finally, under a last impulse from the straining population behind them, the border people (now almost wholly pastoral) were flung out of the furthest crazy oasis into the untrodden wilderness as nomads. This process, to be watched to-day with individual families and tribes to whose marches an exact name and date might be put, must have been going on since the first day of full settlement of Yemen. The Widian below Mecca and Taif are crowded with the memories and place-names of half a hundred tribes which have gone from there, and may be found to-day in Nejd, in Jebel Shammar, in the Hamad, even on the frontiers of Syria and Mesopotamia. There was the source of migration, the factory of nomads, the springing of the gulf-stream of desert wanderers.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Rite of Spring

On a bit of a modernism kick; really such interesting stuff. Quoth Peter Childs (from wikipedia), "There were paradoxical if not opposed trends towards revolutionary and reactionary positions, fear of the new and delight at the disappearance of the old, nihilism and fanatical enthusiasm, creativity and despair." Or as Fitzgerald put it (at 23, goddamn I feel like an underachiever now), a generation "grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken."

So anyway, here's the Rite of Spring:

And here's a snip of a documentary on the music.