Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Links and Notes

I heard for the first time about Terra Preta de Indio (Amazonian Dark Earths) today.

Here's a brief description:
While most Amazonian earth is notoriously nutrient poor, yellowish, sterile, and unscented, there are extensive patches of soil that are mysteriously dark, moist, fragrant, and filled with insects, microbial life, and organic matter.

That's interesting, but not nearly as interesting as this: the soil is apparently the result of techniques first used more than a thousand years ago. Here's the process:
The terra preta soils at Hatahara and the other sites are made from a mixture of plant refuse and animal and fish bones, along with large quantities of charcoal that were deposited after settlers used stone axes and slow-burning fires to clear forest. Such smoldering fires produced more charcoal than ash. The charcoal, soot, and other carbon remains (collectively called biochar) retained nutrients, particularly potassium and phosphorus, that are limited in tropical soils.

Here's another link with more information.

Popular Science has several interesting articles this month. The first is about a company called Senomyx, a biotechnology company that is developing food additives that alter taste receptors. Potentially, it could significantly reduce the amount of sugar and salt in food without changing the taste. Here's an excerpt:
Think of Senomyx's additives (currently in tests with food-industry biggies Coca-Cola and Nestle, among others) as anti-flavors: molecules that alter taste receptors and trick the brain into thinking that a food tastes better than it really does.

Pretty amazing, and the company website is here.

There's also an article titled "Origami Optics," and it discusses how digital camera makers are increasing the focal length of their lenses using the same technique used by reflective-telescope makers. Here's an excerpt from a Live Science article that covers essentially the same ground as the PS article:
To make cameras thin and still capable of taking quality pictures, doctoral candidate Eric Tremblay at the University of California at San Diego, along with Ford and their colleagues, are replacing traditional lenses with inventions dubbed "folded optics."

"Traditional camera lenses are typically made up of many different lens elements that work together to provide a sharp, high quality image," Tremblay said. "Here we did much the same thing, but the elements are concentric mirrors folded on top of one another to reduce the thickness of the optic."

..."Our imager is about seven times more powerful than a conventional lens of the same depth," Tremblay said.

Read more here.

The Smoking Gun has launched a video section, and if you have a few minutes to spare, it's well worth poking around. Lots of newsreel footage, in particular, which is fascinating to see. Take a look here.

Future Nobel Prize Winner Brian Pilnick let me know that Fotowoosh is being created by a group of Carnegie-Mellon students who originally worked on the concept here.

Graham Aldridge also let me know that there's a Microsoft research project called "Photosynth" that does this:
Our software takes a large collection of photos of a place or an object, analyzes them for similarities, and then displays the photos in a reconstructed three-dimensional space, showing you how each one relates to the next.

It's very interesting, and you can see it here. Be warned that if you click on the "Try It" link, you're taken to a page where a browser plug-in tries to install automatically (so that you can view the collections). I had no problems (after approving the install in Firefox), but it's going to install without any authorization from you unless your browser is set up to block those kinds of things.

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