Monthly Archives: January 2010

Swedish chef vs. Google Voice

Last weekend my brother told me to call him at a new number, and say anything to his voicemail. I did. Then he pulled out his iPhone to show how incredibly well it had transcribed the message. To his surprise, it hadn’t transcribed it at all. He then spent the next five minutes figuring out how to listen to the audio.

Today he informed me that Google had finally transcribed the message. Here it is.

(In his view, it underlines the words as the audio plays. Unless they add that feature to the public view, you’ll just have to guess.)

Forging the Mona Lisa with a paint roller

This picture of Betelgeuse is rather blurry. But that can be forgiven, since it’s 600 light years away. Or can it? How hard is it to see something that distant?

Consider measuring the moon by holding your hand out and squeezing your thumb and first finger like a caliper. It’s cloudy today, but I’d guess it would be slightly less than an inch from thumb to finger.

Betelgeuse is one of two stars marking the hunter’s shoulders in the constellation Orion, but it’s not practical to conduct this experiment. Which is why we have math. It’s about 600 light years away, and as wide as the orbit of Jupiter (light takes 80 minutes to cross from one side to the other.) Assuming the distance from your eye to your hand is one meter, you would need to hold your thumb and finger about a nanometer apart.

That distance is the length of ultraviolet light wave. But that picture was taken using infrared– with a thousand times the wavelength. That’s like painting fine art with a really wide paint roller.

[Sylvia was watching Jordan and me do these calculations last night. With luck she learned that math is fun and useful for grown-ups.]

Full body scanners wouldn’t have caught the underwear bomber

Why doesn’t the press or the blogosphere pick up on these sorts of things? (They report it, but forget it instantly.) The virtual strip search that people have been talking about would detect an unusual dense device, but can’t tell an explosive from a wallet. (I suppose if the underwear bomber had expected a full-body scan, he could have hidden the explosives in Depends.)

For that matter, we seem to have forgotten that you can do a lot more damage with box cutters than a bomb. What we need is not more security: we need more perspective. Terrorism, at its worst, kills fewer people than car accidents, murder, high blood pressure, lightning, or just about anything else that actually kills people every year.

I’m in agreement with Bruce Schneier on this one: the airport security worked, in that it forced the terrorists to use small, hard-to-detonate bombs– thereby making it likely that passengers will notice and defuse them. Without airport security, it would have been a standard-issue, tried-and-true suicide bomber vest. Which is to say, airport security stops the low-budget and the me-too attacks but will never be able to stop a cunning, highly organized attacker.