Martin Lersch’s mathematically perfect Christmas cookie cutter

Get the most out of your Christmas cookies with a tessellating cookie cutter thanks to a Norwegian chemist-cum-cooking enthusiast.

It might have been Christmas Day yesterday but that doesn’t mean the season is over (today is the second day of Christmas after all). And that means lots more food to eat, including Christmas cookies. But how do you get the most out of a batch? Norwegian chemist Martin Lersch has a solution.

He wanted to solve the problem of making Christmas cookies using a cookie cutter that wasted the least amount of biscuit. He blogged about his project on his site, Khymos, where he also examines the “chemical curiosities of the kitchen”.

According to Lersch, most Christmas-related shapes are inefficient, all except one: the humble Christmas tree. Lersch’s Christmas tree tessellates meaning it can fit next to each other without leaving any gaps or overlaps.

When cutting cookies from a rolled out dough or placing cookies on a sheet for baking you actually attempt to solve a mathematical problem known as a packing problem. The purpose is to maximize the distance between the cookies and maximize the size of the cookies, paying attention that the cookies should not touch. Many will perhaps start with a square packing (see below), but soon figure out that a hexagonal packing will fit even more cookies onto the rolled out dough or onto the baking sheet (especially when the dough/sheet is large compared to the cookies).

Lersch also opened the challenge to the public to find their own tessellating Christmas shapes and said he might have his cookie cutter 3D-printed.

Read the full blog post on his website.

20 Web research studies/surveys from 2020

The likes of Google, Mailchimp, and Stack Overflow have generated reports about the state of the Web in 2020.

CSS Tricks compiled a list of 20 surveys, studies, and almanacs involving Web research. Everything from HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and UX is covered and judging by the findings, it’s been a very busy year for the Web as more of us have been using it during the pandemic.

You can read the full list on CSS Tricks but here are 5 of my favourites:

  1. 2020’s Web Almanac by HTTP Archive (which features some of my industry colleagues in the SEO section)
  2. State of CSS 2020
  3. Google’s Year in Search
  4. Mailchimp’s 2020 Annual Report
  5. Stack Overflow Developer Survey 2020

I wonder what the future holds for the Web in 2021 with a new US president on the way and a second year of the pandemic (because it won’t just disappear next year). If you have any thoughts, let us know in the comments.

How to hold up a table with strings

Thanks to tensegrity, you can rest a dumbbell on a table help up by strings. No, I’ve not been drinking any eggnog or wine, why?

You’ve probably heard of string theory but this is quite different. Using strings and a 3D-printed table, The Action Lab have made what’s called a tensegrity structure:

Tensegrity allows strain to be distributed across a structure. While buildings built from continuous compression may not show this property, more elastic structures like our bodies do. These structures can be built on top of smaller units that continuously distribute strain.

Definition via Hackaday

In a nutshell: a tensegrity structure uses isolated parts and tension to retain its shape without touching each other. The strings hold the tension and connect the components in a network.

The video below shows how those strings can hold weight so well and how vital they are in tensegrity structures. They start with demonstrating a string holding the weight of a pair of scissors, and some cardboard before showing the 3D-printed table. It looks like an illusion but I assure you it’s real. Isn’t science cool?

Stream it below.

7 Blerds from history

STEM (science, tech, engineering, and mathematics) owes a great deal to Black pioneers. Here are 7 of them.

Through the hard work and tenacity of Blerds (Black nerds), we have home security systems, blood transfusions, refrigeration systems, and even GIFs.

In this article, I took a brief look at 7 such figures. Blerds unite!

1. Frederick McKinley Jones

Jones was a Black American inventor and winner of the National Medal of Technology who made significant contributions to the world of refrigeration. Ever heard of the Thermo King? That was his invention.

2. Window Snyder

9 November 2017; Window Snyder, CSO, Fastly, on the FullSTK Stage during day three of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon. Photo by Cody Glenn/Web Summit via Sportsfile

Window Snyder is a cybersecurity expert who has worked for the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Intel and Mozilla Corporation. She also co-wrote Threat Modeling, a “straightforward and practical guide” that outlines “the concepts and goals for threat modeling—a structured approach for identifying, evaluating, and mitigating risks to system security”.

Synder has also provided keynote speeches at HITBSecConf, Open Source Summit, and the Women in Tech Symposium.

3. Angela Benton

Angela Benton is an influential figure in tech, promoting diversity in the industry and helping minority-led tech companies raise venture capital. That vital work has won her a plethora of accolades including:

  • TheRoot 100 in 2010, 2011, and 2012
  • Ebony Magazine’s Power 150 in 2011 and 2012
  • Fast Company’s Most Influential Women In Technology
  • Business Insiders’ 25 Most Influential African-Americans in Technology
  • Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs

Benton is best known for launching NewME, a startup accelerator for minority founders. It was the first program of its kind in the US, and has helped founders generate more than $47m in funding.

4. Dr. Marc Regis Hannah

The first movie I ever saw in 3D was Terminator 2 and Dr. Marc Regis Hannah played a major part in making that happen.

He worked at Silicon Graphics Inc. for 16 years where he was one of the co-founders, developing 3D special effects systems used in films like Terminator 2 and in scientific settings. That alone makes him one of the most influential and unsung heroes of modern cinema.

5. Shirley Ann Jackson

Shirley Ann Jackson is a Black American woman of firsts. She was the first African-American woman to have earned a doctorate at MIT and the second African-American woman in the US to earn a doctorate in physics. In 1995, President Clinton made her Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and in 1999, she became the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Her research led to advancements in the fields of quantum physics, having worked at CERN and AT&T Bell Laboratories.

6. Lisa Gelobter

GIF or JIF? No matter how you pronounce it, Lisa Gelobter was instrumental in its creation. The computer scientist was heavily involved in the development of video on the internet and helped to create the team behind the graphics interchange format or GIF.

Gelobter is now the CEO of tEQuitable, a tech company that focuses on inclusivity in the workplace by providing safe platforms to address discrimination. She also worked under the Obama adminsitration in various roles including the U.S. Digital Service where she contribute to the redesign and improvement of Healthcare.gov.

7. Roy Clay

Born in Missouri in 1929, Roy Clay Sr. is best known as being a founding member of Hewlett-Packard’s computer division. But before that, he grew up in the segregated South and battled racism in his early life, as he recounted in an essay for Mercury News:

I think of how close I came to being Michael Brown.

Fortunately, I survived my encounter with the Ferguson police. But it says a great deal that young Mr. Brown will not have the opportunity I had to attend college, build a career and raise a family. Hopefully, my story will help explain why that makes us all the poorer.

On one hot August day, I stopped to order a soft drink from the grocery store. I was not permitted to consume the drink inside the store, so I sat on the curb outside. A Ferguson police car drove up and the officers stepped out to ask what I was doing there. I told them that I stopped on my way home from work.

I was handcuffed, placed in the rear seat, and driven for approximately a mile, to the intersection of the city of Kinloch. The car stopped as many thoughts were going through my mind, including the fact that a body of water, called Baileys Pond, was at that location. I envisioned the worst, including how I would escape if I were taken toward the water.

He later became director of the team that created one of HP’s first mini-computers, the HP 2116A and developed initiatives to improve the racial diversity in Silicon Valley to allow more Black coders to join.

After leaving HP in 1971, Clay got involved in politics and was elected Vice Mayor of Palo Alto in 1976.

6 neologisms of Stanisław Lem

Stanisław Lem was notorious for his neologisms and the difficulty in translating them. Here are 6 that predicted future technologies.

Back in uni (2008-2009), I used to fall down Wikipedia rabbit holes as a way to deal with/escape my depression. Today, I fell down a shallow one—minus the depression—and stopped at the neologisms of Stanisław Lem. Here’s my route:

Stalker → Andrei Tarkovsky → Solaris → Stanisław Lem → Neologisms of Stanisław Lem

Stanisław Lem was a Polish sci-fi writer best known as the author of 1961 novel, Solaris, and his work on philosophy, alien intelligence, and interactions with humanity.

Lem said of his neologisms:

Neologisms happen to come up only when they become absolutely indispensable to me during the course of writing. I am unable to think up one that would carry meaning if asked to work outside of context, sui generic. I really have no clue as to how this process works. Some neologisms were hell to conjure. For example, in my latest book, Fiasco, I couldn’t hit upon a name for the walking machines, and for two years they were nameless. I tried to think up a derivative of Latin, and then English, but to no avail. I finally settled, in Polish, on “wielkochody” (multisteppers, macromobils).

From the Wikipedia page on his neologisms, here are 6 that predicted future technologies, taken from his 1964 book, Summa Technologiae:

1. Phantomatics → virtual reality

From Paisley Livingston’s review of Lem and the history and philosophy of virtual reality:

Lem rightly bemoans the cultural amnesia of the current writers who display an appalling lack of discernment with regard to a value that clearly ranks most highly in their scheme of things: newness. Just how new, after all, is the idea of a device capable of generating an illusion indistinguishable from reality? Lem’s term for such a device, “phantomatics,” was coined 30 years before there was any talk of cyberspace or virtual reality. And although Lem does not broach the issue, it is not impossible to find earlier evocations of the topic which correspond, in different ways, to aspects of the current speculation over virtual reality.

There’s also a great chapter on phantomatics in “Between an Animal and a Machine: Stanisław Lem’s Technological Utopia” by Paweł Majewski.

2. Molectronics → molecular nanotechnology

Molectronics or molecular electronics described an idea very close to modern molecular nanotechnology (or MNT), the ability to build structures all the way down to atomic-level specifications. MNT also related to Richard Feynman’s idea of “miniature factories using nanomachines to build complex products”.

3. Cerebromatics → cognitive enhancement

From the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at Oxford University:

Lem contrasted his ‘phantomatics’—fooling the brain by providing false information to the senses—with what he termed ‘cerebromatics’: interference with the function of the brain itself. This, too, has become a reality. In our research we commonly take advantage of what are effectively ‘cerebromatic’ methods. We control the activity of specific neurons in the brain—and hence the behaviour of an animal—using techniques such as optogenetics, thermogenetics or chemical genetics.

4. Imitology → the creation of artificial life

Lang disseminated Lem’s vision of imitology:

Once we learn to produce them from the same material that real flowers are made of, the distinction will no longer be applicable. When everything can be “artificial” in that sense, nothing is either artificial or natural, because a product of Nature is indistinguishable from something produced by Designer. Moreover, the broadening of human knowledge from the planet Earth to the Universe, which took place in the scope of the last hundred years, again deprives the opposition of Natural and Artificial of its meaning. It used to be possible to claim that the Amazon Jungle is natural, and the office of a dean at All Souls College – artificial. But a question of whether a star cluster is natural or artificial is just badly put.

Lem is certain those changes will happen; we just do not know when that will be. Speaking of “imitology” – this is the general term Lem coins for the problematic – he does not touch upon the question of “when.”

5. Ariadnology → search engine crawlers or “spiders”

How do search engines like Google get all those links to web pages? They use web crawlers or “spiders” to find them, render them, and add them to their indexes.

From Paul Grimstad’s “The Beautiful Mind-Bending of Stanislaw Lem”:

[…] “ariadnology” seems pretty close to a Google search engine (tracking Ariadne’s thread of some sought-after piece of data through tangled labyrinths of information).

Although the idea of networked computers were already a thing—albeit in a very primitive form compared to the internet today—ariadnology predated consumer-level search engines by 3 decades.

6. Intellectronics → artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence has been around in some form for centuries but the sophisticated machinery and electronics involved in modern AI is still new and ever-evolving.

Lem’s called the path to advanced artificial intelligence “the ‘technoevolution’ of ‘intellectronics'” and it certainly feels like we’re there now.

In Chapter 4 of Summa Technologiae, he discussed the “general trend to mathematize the sciences” where mathematics didn’t always have a place and the discovery that it was “insufficient for the realization of certain, only recently formulated goals at the frontier of the most advanced of all the latest research activities”. He then went onto describe an “intelligence amplifier”, intended to mimic human intelligence and amplify it, allowing for faster, more effective work in theory.

The possibility of constructing such an amplifier is no less real than the possibility of constructing a machine which is a hundred times stronger than a human.

Urban explorers uncover Soviet computers from the 70s

Here lies Soviet computing from the 70s, unearthed by a group of explorers.

A group of Russian urban explorers recently discovered piles of Soviet computers and servers. Amongst the tech was the Saratov-2, a popular machine at the time but not something you’d find loads of information about on the Web:

Part of the cabinets were antique electronic computers. Others served to measure signals, and computers controlled this process. Dozens of terminals froze on the tables with extinct screens.

Suddenly it became clear that before them the legendary machine “Saratov-2”. The machine, which was massively placed on many enterprises of the Soviet Union in the 70s, but at the same time, not a single high-quality (I’m not talking about color) photos remained. Not on the Internet, not even in the museum of the enterprise developer.

Hackaday also covered the story and added more context to the story of Soviet computing:

While mass-market Western desktop machines followed the path of adopting newer architectures such as the Z80 or the 8086 the Soviets instead took their minicomputer technology to that level. It would be interesting to speculate how these machines might further have developed over the 1990s had history been different. Meanwhile we all have a tangible legacy of Soviet PDP/11 microcomputers in the form of Tetris, which was first written on an Elektronika 60.

Now I’m imagining a Soviet Raspberry Pi (don’t worry, I won’t do the reverse R thing).

(all image rights reserved to Ralph Mirebs)

What if the Earth suddenly turned into a black hole?

Death after 21 minutes of free falling? There could be worse ways to go and none involving black holes.

I just read something fascinating, probably impossible but terrifying nonetheless.

Ethan Siegel wrote a lengthy Medium post on what we would experience if the Earth suddenly turned into a black hole. It’s an incredible read and you don’t need a physics degree to understand the fundamentals. In essence, it’d go something like this:

  • As the black hole developed, the Earth would fall in on itself
  • We’d free fall inside it too but not really feel anything for about 20 minutes
  • Then we’d turn into “spaghetti” and it would be quick and painful
  • Everything would be atomised

And while gravity is involved, it’s not the only force at play:

As it turns out, gravity doesn’t need to be the only force: just the dominant one. As the matter collapses, it crosses a critical threshold for the amount of mass within a certain volume, leading to the formation of an event horizon. Eventually, some time later, any object at rest — no matter how far away from the event horizon it initially was — will cross that horizon and encounter the central singularity.

Can this happen while we’re alive? Or at all? The short answer is no.

Right now, the reason Earth is stable against gravitational collapse is because the forces between the atoms that make it up — specifically, between the electrons in neighboring atoms — is large enough to resist the cumulative force of gravity provided by the entire mass of the Earth. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising, as if you considered the gravitational versus the electromagnetic force between two electrons, you’d find that the latter force was stronger by about a factor of a whopping ~10⁴².

So we’re safe against spontaneous black holes. But coronaviruses? The jury is still out on that one (when it should be inside).

Granville T. Woods was a prolific Black engineer

With over 60 patents to his name, Granville T. Woods was an amazing inventor. But he didn’t get the recognition he deserved until after his death.

Have you ever heard of Granville T. Woods? Props if you have because I hadn’t until this year.

Born in Ohio in 1856, Granville Tailer Woods was a Black inventor and engineer with more than 60 patents to his name before he died in 1910. They included:

  • Egg incubators
  • A “telegraphony” – a device which was a cross between a telephone and a telegraph that allowed telegraph stations to send voice and telegraph messages through Morse code over a single wire.
  • A steam boiler furnace

One of his best-known inventions was the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph which “allowed communications between train stations from moving trains by creating a magnetic field around a coiled wire under the train”.

The invention was successful enough to inspire Woods to establish Woods Electric Company to market and sell his patents but the company dissolved in 1893. Then Thomas Edison decided to claim ownership of Woods’ patent because that was the kind of douche Edison was.

Woods beat both claims from Edison and was later offered a job at Edison Company after the second claim failed but Woods declined because that was the kind of man he was.

His patents revolutionised the rail industries but had to eventually sell many to the likes of the American Bell Telephone Company and… Edison’s General Electric Company.

Michael C. Christopher wrote of Woods’s plight, a common problem for Black inventors of his time:

“Woods had to concede that the race of the inventor did affect the market value of the invention. Unfortunately, while selling to the larger corporations reaped small profits for the black inventors, an invention sometimes exceeded all expectations in consumer popularity. In these instances, the company owning the patent received the profits. After selling his invention, the inventor lost all claims to it, receiving no profits and no public recognition for its conception.”

How much—if anything—has changed for Black innovators in the 21st century? Atlas Obscura’s closing paragraph from their piece on Woods says it all:

“His [Woods] life is a lesson not only in science and innovation, but also in the precariousness of legacy. Inventors, says Fouché—both those who enjoy credit and those who are denied it—rarely innovate in isolation. Many brilliant minds work simultaneously on the same problem, and for reasons of prejudice, luck, or law, just a few of them enter the historical record.”

And we know who the real winners end up being.

For more on Granville T. Woods and his patents, check out this page from The Brooklyn Historic Railway Association (including an incomplete list of his patents), and an interactive obituary from The New York Times.

The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain by Francesca Sobande

The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain by author and academic Francesca Sobande tells the story of Black British women in digital culture.

An often-overlooked side of the Digital Age is from a Black British female perspective. Francesca Sobande’s new book ‘The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain’ tells that side of the narrative.

Based on interviews and archival research, this book explores how media is implicated in Black women’s lives in Britain. From accounts of twentieth-century activism and television representations, to experiences of YouTube and Twitter, Sobande’s analysis traverses tensions between digital culture’s communal, counter-cultural and commercial qualities.

The book’s five chapters are:

The good news is two of the chapters are free to read (the links above) but I strongly suggest you buy the hard copy/PDF.

The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain is available to purchase at Palgrave Macmillan for £24.99 hardback/£19.99 ebook (with 20% Oct discount code: FxNCXTKa7Fx39cX)

Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon on STEM and her ‘Stemettes’

Mathematician, computer scientist, and co-founder of Stemettes Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon spoke to Bustle about her work with young girls and the best guidance she’s ever gotten.

We don’t hear enough about Black mathematicians, especially Black British female mathematicians. So my eyes widen when I saw this interview with Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon.

You may know Anne-Marie as the London schoolgirl who became one of the youngest people to pass an A-level examination when she gained an E in Computing and a D in Maths (AS Level) at the age of 11.

Now, she’s the co-founder of a mentoring program called Stemettes:

While most of the world was struggling to adjust to stay-at-home orders in March, British mathematician Anne-Marie Imafidon was already settled into her year of JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out). Imafidon, who’s the co-founder of Stemettes, a mentoring program that encourages girls to practice mathematics, science, and computing through fun and free activities, had planned to spend 2020 staying home and develop initiatives for young women and girls in STEM. During lockdown, she ran a series of online events — Instagram Lives, YouTube Lives, and a role model Q&A — before launching a virtual summer school.

In her Bustle interview, she discussed the young girls she mentors, the best and worst advice she’d ever received (“I don’t think any advice is bad, because it’s from that person’s perspective.”), and her advice for young women in STEM.

Read the interview on Bustle.

Huawei to release HarmonyOS 2.0

HarmonyOS 2.0 will be available to smartphones in December but how will it fare in the market?

Consumer business CEO Richard Yu announced a plan to bring Huawei’s HarmonyOS 2.0 to more devices, including smartphones, at Huawei’s developer conference in Shenzhen, China today.

From The Verge:

Huawei will make a beta version of the HarmonyOS 2.0 SDK available to developers today, though it’ll initially only support smartwatches, car head units, and TVs. A smartphone version of the SDK will follow in December 2020, and Yu hinted that phones running HarmonyOS might appear next year.

We had reported the possibility of Huawei using Sailfish OS for their devices in 2019 but moved towards Harmony OS in August 2019.

HarmonyOS only supports devices with 128MB of RAM or below at the moment, but that’ll expand to 4GB in April 2021, and no memory limit at all by October 2021.

The obvious question is how will HarmonyOS fare against Android and iOS but should they focus solely on that competition? Of course, Huawei can’t ignore the two biggest operating systems in the market but given its lower stature, they should make sure its current customers are happy with the new version and branch out from there.

They also need to contend with the sanctions against them doing business with American companies, which this will help to overcome.

I’m so used to seeing companies chase newness without caring for the existing customers and it’s a foolish way to lose an ethos of loyalty. So fingers crossed they can succeed and gain as much market share as they can without compromising their core base.

A cocky locksmith just lost a $75 bet

Could you pick a lock in less than 134 seconds based on a bet? LockPickingLawyer could.

A cocky locksmith just lost a $75 bet to LockPickingLawyer. In the video, LPL received a letter from a viewer saying:

Dear Lock Picking Lawyer,

I’m throwing down the gauntlet!

I recently lost the key to my Kryptonite bike lock/chain while far from home. I called a locksmith to open it. When he arrived, I asked if he could pick the lock since I have another key at home and didn’t want the lock destroyed. He said my lock couldn’t be picked but when I said I had seen it done on YouTube. I got a strong reaction.

The locksmith became visibly irritated and told me he had been picking locks for over 25 years and he was “sick and tired” of people watching fake lock picking videos and expecting him to “magically open locks in two seconds.” When I asked if he had seen the Lock Picking Lawyer, he roughly dropped his tool bag and told me you’re the worst offender and your videos are complete bullsh*t.

After talking about lock picking videos for a few minutes, he told me he was willing to put his money where his mouth is. Here is the challenge to you: the locksmith said I could send you the remains of my bike lock in a sealed package and if you could open the package on video and pick the lock faster than he could open it with a grinder, he would refund the $75 he charged me for the job. We timed him cutting my lock it took 2 minutes and 14 seconds.

Are you up for the challenge? Will you defend your name? I’ll be watching your channel and hoping.

Kindest regards,

Malcolm M.

As you can tell from the title, LockPickingLawyer completed the challenge and he did it in less than 30 seconds. Let’s hope the disgruntled locksmith keeps to his word.