Category Archives: Cathemeral thoughts

Thoughts that occur at whatever time of the day or night it happens to be.

Hacking on a Journal of Brief Ideas

Today I was fortunate to spend the afternoon at an unconference session at the KIPAC@10 conference at SLAC. The session turned into more of a hackathon for the project I was leading, based on my thoughts about a Journal of Brief Ideas, from a few years ago.

We only had a few hours to spend so we had a good chat about the desired feature set for a Journal of Brief Ideas, the kinds of views the user interface would have, and what we might achieve in code during the session. I had previously decided to use figshare as the foundation of JOBI, seeing as it provides DOIs and permanence for all data stored there.

In the end, we drew a few wireframes, thought about what a classic paper by Edwin Hubble would look like as a series of brief ideas, and started the journal. Yes, that’s right, the first couple of entries and the first internal citation now exist on figshare. There are still plenty of issues to resolve but we have a sense for what the minimal model of this journal would look like.

We didn’t get too far on the code as the OAuth caused us some trouble, as it always seems to, but we plan to work on this at the upcoming dot.astronomy conference and Science Hack Day SF 2013. There is, however, a GitHub repository with the initial code we worked on.

Thanks to my coworkers (listed on the front page of the slide set we showed at the end of the session) and to @drphilmarshall for organizing the meeting and including an unconference session.

Real-cost-of-driving meter (Ingenuity hack day 2013)

The real-cost-of-driving meter prototype that parses data coming from a car enabled with OpenXC.

A few weeks ago I went to the BoingBoing/Ford OpenXC Hack day, held at TechShop in San Francisco. About 40 or so hackers with different backgrounds came together to see what we could do using the new OpenXC open source interface to Ford (and other) cars. The system delivers about 50 performance variables from the car up to 60 times per second.

The resulting hacks were useful, intriguing, or just plain fun. I worked with a guy I just met, Steven Kryskalla, a developer from lumosity on a project that I had conceived when I saw the data available.

We built a real-cost-of-driving meter, which basically showed you in real time what your trip was costing. It incorporated the actual amount of fuel being used along with a charge for maintenance and ownership costs.

Seeing as we didn’t have an actual car to drive around and play with, we ran the tests for the device from 5 recorded trips made by a real car. The outputs from those trips were all recorded for the purpose of testing add-ons like ours. So the code was interpreting a stream of data from a file rather than direct from the car but it does the same thing. When the data was parsed, we made the calculations needed and sent the information over a serial port to an Arduino.

The cost was then displayed as a mobile Web page and a physical display that looked a bit like an old-fashioned taximeter, employing 7-segment LED displays driven by the Arduino. The 7-seg display is multiplexed (hence all the wiring you see) but controlled via a very cool library that makes it really easy to operate.

We managed to get the whole system working in about 6 hours of work and were awarded the Best Use of Data prize by the organizers.

You can see the code, which is available to play with and adopt at Steven’s github page. You can also see some (rather blurry) photos of the finished device here.

Thanks to BoingBoing, Ford, and Audeze for the experience and the prizes!

Standard Model of Cocktail Physics

Standard Model of Cocktail Physics

The fundamental laws of the universe create recipes for how particles combine to create other particles. Why not make these recipes a step more literal and make cocktails based on the laws of physics? A kind of “Quantum Mixology”.

Each fundamental particle is mapped onto a cocktail ingredient, whether a liquor, a mixer, or a garnish. Then compound particles, which consist of combinations of fundamental particles, have a recipe for a cocktail built in.

We have matched cocktail ingredients to fundamental particles in a way that the properties of the particles match the properties of the ingredients as much as possible. For example, the electron and the electron neutrino are often found together in particle decays so those two particles map on to gin and tonic respectively. In addition the neutrinos are much lighter particles so they correspond to the mixers rather than the alcohols. A wealth of choices like that underlie the mapping from fundamental particles to cocktail ingredients.

The cocktails are presented as a set of recipes, defined by compound particles, but we have also done a back translation and adapted classic cocktails to a quantum theme, identifying these new recipes by their particle ingredients.

The translation from particles to ingredients is presented in a poster showing “The Standard Model of Cocktail Physics”. The recipes are also available through a website that does the translations of particles into ingredients for you.

This work was completed during the 24 hours of #sciencehackday 2012 in San Francisco by a team consisting of
David Harris, Julyanne Liang, Matt Bellis, Moon Limb, Morris Mwanga, Oksana Timonin, and Yevgeny Binder.

The slides from the presentation of the hack, including recipes, are at

The Higgs recipe isn’t on the slides but we determine it via a prominent decay of the Higgs via two Z bosons, which can then decay into muons and electrons. That translates to whiskey plus gin with a hint of lime juice (for the remnants of the Zs!)

For physicists: You can generate a cocktail from any Feynman diagram so try your hand at seeing what a beta decay is, for example.

You can get more info about the project from physicsdavid (at) gmail


A Journal of Brief Ideas

Update Oct 12, 2013: We are actively developing the Journal of Brief Ideas now at The journal will allow you to submit but most of the functionality is not there yet, sorry. We’re only beginning. But drop me a note @physicsdavid if you want to see it developed further!


One thing slowing down the flow of research information is that the quantum of research, or the smallest publishable amount, is actually quite large, meaning that a lot of good ideas don’t get published (i.e. spread). Ideas stuck in a mind are no use to anybody except that one individual, and that limits the power of the idea.

Furthermore, in some fields it can take five years of work or more for a postdoc to gather enough data and do the analysis for a single strong paper. The quantum is definitely too large in those fields.

The idea of a long paper of many pages is an evolved phenomenon with the original “papers”–letters in early journals–often taking half a page or less to print. But those days are long gone.

Ideas which might be important but are small in size don’t have a natural home. So what if there were the equivalent of a journal, or more specifically the equivalent of the arXiv, for these briefly-expressible ideas?

The key features of such a journal would be:

  • time and date stamped submission, for claiming priority
  • revisions allowed with a new date stamp
  • easy to cite like arXiv entries
  • include citations to other ideas in the journal
  • allow good search
  • have RSS feed for individual authors so you can follow one person’s ideas if you like the way they think
  • have a tag folksonomy with the responsibility being on the idea submitter to tag well so that their ideas can be found appropriately
  • ideas should be rateable by others
  • limit to the size of what can be presented. If it takes too much space to write down it is probably breakable into smaller ideas. Ideally each entry should be a single idea.

In one sense, you could just replicate the arXiv adding tagging and you’d have a nice workable system.

One of the issues to face would be dealing with spam and users who might overload the system with crap. I’m not sure how to deal with the latter at first and it’s not clear how big a problem it would be. Perhaps a rating system could help deal with that.

Of course, there is also room for a peer-reviewed version of such a journal with the emphasis on brief communications. Having peer review would weed out a lot of the rubbish that could potentially collect.

Hosting Dr Kiki’s Science Hour

Today I have the great pleasure of hosting Dr Kiki’s Science Hour on You can watch the show live at It’ll be on at 4pm Pacific Time.

My guest is Julian Voss-Andreae, an exceptionally good science artist who I came across many years ago. I eagerly await his new pieces to see what he’ll come up with next!

If you’re just dropping in here from the show, welcome! Take a look at the Sciartica magazine project and consider contributing something!

Update: You can watch the episode here.

Creating the ideal science magazine

Everybody has a different idea of an ideal science magazine but how close could we get to something that satisfied a core group of science magazine enthusiasts by starting from scratch and reinventing what people do.

I might have a chance to execute on a plan and would love help in designing what a science magazine for a modern world with modern technology would look like. So far, we are seeing plenty more of the same being ported to new devices but no real rethinking from scratch. Or at least no implementation of those ideas.

This could be a good topic for a weeklong science writers’ retreat that a few of us have discussed. Or perhaps we can just crowdsource it on a wiki. I’m keen to chat with people who might like to dig deep in the process of designing a new magazine.

Barcamp + hackday combo?

Thinking about the science design barcamp idea, would it be a good idea to run on consecutive weekends a barcamp and then a hackday?

The barcamp would be great for talking about issues and identifying problems and the hackday would provide a venue to start tackling some of them? Does anybody else use this format already?

Particle Wind Chime next generation

After our successful hacking of a particle wind chime at Science Hack Day SF 2010, it’s time to see if I can build a standalone Web-enabled version. I plan to build a hardware module that will connect to a wireless network, download events, and play them. I still need to work out what settings to have in hardware and what to run from software, but that depends on how bulky it gets. The bonus is that the hardware version can automatically include the light show version of the wind chime very easily!

Basic idea: Arduino + XBee + MIDIvox + blinkM connecting to a web server that will feed the events in the correct format. (Update: an XBee won’t work of course for wifi so I’m looking for a good cheap wifi module. It looks like there are some good ones but I welcome recommendations!)

Do the setting of pitch, duration, volume, instrument to various particle properties via rotary BCD switches. (Poll via 5 digital pins, setting one to select channel and send power high while listening on the four output pins which are all in parallel between all channels.)

Also be able to select a known event (via two BCD wheels)–good for testing channel allocations–or request a random new event from a live stream.

Science and design barcamp

Basic idea: Bring scientists and designers together for a weekend to see how design can make science more effective, efficient, or enjoyable.

– Physical stuff: Equipment (glassware, tools, etc.)/labeling, recording devices, lab notebooks
– Shared space planning: corridors, shared spaces, public spaces
– Intrascience communication: Conference posters, advertising/event spaces, conference booths, conference forms
– Interscience communication: Colloquia, conference booths, etc.
– Outreach: publications, visitor centers, handouts, schwag, new forms, web
– Personal space planning: Office arrangements, lab space
– Behavioral: Travel, visiting/remote office, two-body problem
– Sociological: Team dynamics, group meetings, work sharing, collaboration tools/techniques, recognition of contributions (esp. in collaboration)
– Administrative: Paper preparation, grant preparation, whereami?
– Community: equivs of arxiv, SPIRES, blog networks, conference ARGs, etc.
– Innovation drivers: Sharing, meeting, cross-fertilization
– Play: Games, ARGS, quizzes, activities, ice-breakers

Designers: Questions, observations, offerings
Scientists: Problems, annoyances, common behaviors, norms, time allocation
Have a set of questions to answer to find problem areas. e.g.
– What do you waste most time on? (Specifically)
– What do you feel like should be easier?
– What items do you use most on while at your desk? In your lab?
– What action do you repeat most often in a day?
– What rule do you find most constraining?
– How do you travel to/from work?
– What times do you usually go to/from work?
– What is the most enjoyable part of a typical day?
– What is the most annoying part of a typical day?
– What behavior did you need to learn for your job?

Big Qs for us as planners:
What’s the incentive for designers to attend?
– possible contracts/projects/portfolio pieces
What’s in it for scientists?
– possible solutions