SciTechBlog
May 3, 2010

Geek Out!: Wearing your geek cred

Posted: 12:18 PM ET
Science Is A Verb Now
Science Is A Verb Now

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

As the old saying goes, "clothing makes the man." In the geek culture, what is said on the clothing is more important than the clothing itself.

Geeks, gamers and nerds have been showing their cred by the logos, designs and saying on their T-shirts. It is considered a badge of honor and a way to connect with others of like minds.

Shirt designers say people use T-shirts as a quick visual way to tell the world something about themselves. While the core audience for these shirts used to be hardcore geeks, some companies say the appeal has broadened in recent years.

Shane Peterman from Think Geek said buyers of their products include gamers, college students, scientists and NASA employees. "It is more of an open secret now," he said. "Your shirt helps you identify who is 'in the know'."

Brian Sunter, merchandise manager of Penny Arcade, agrees. "Geeks–and gamers especially–relate to that stuff as well, I think, because gaming has a huge pool of shared experiences," Sunter said. "Maybe it is a little awkward, but we’ve kind of all rescued the same princesses and saved the same worlds."

Chris Hastings, creator of "The Adventures of Dr. McNinja", takes a different view. He thinks T-shirts can connect people who wouldn't normally say a word to each other.

"If one is wearing a T-shirt that says 'Ninjas Can't Catch You If You're On Fire", the other sees it, immediately gets the joke and thinks "Wow! This person has the same weird sense of humor that I do," Hastings said.

Designers say that a good shirt goes a little further than just a logo and one level deeper to make that connection. But it all starts with a creative look on the t-shirt that sometimes has different meanings for different people.

TopatoCo has been working as an online store for many web comics artists for about 8 years. Supreme Commander of Promotions David Malki! said the best shirts get an idea out that is reflective of the comic's tone. He also thinks a good shirt speaks on behalf of the wearer.

"The shirt shows the exclusivity and uniqueness of the wearer," Malki! said. "It makes them seem super cool."

Ryan North, creator of "Dinosaur Comics", aims for shirts that target people who are familiar with his comic, but also works well with someone who has never heard of it.

"That way, the person buying it knows it's rad, and knows that people who see it will think it's rad too," North explained.

Sean Gailey, the Creative Overlord at Jinx, takes another route to designing their geek T-shirts. Gailey said they keep a close eye on trends and user comments.

"Our customer core is shameless and passionate about their interests," Gailey said. "The design message has to mean something and you're in on it."

Peterman also says the popularization of geek culture on television shows and movies influences who buys geek T-shirts.

"'The Big Bang Theory' is a big part of it," he said. "Older geeks are tapping back into the culture and they are the ones who can make buying decisions."

These companies are trying to harness that older audience by offering a wider selection beyond just T-shirts. Polo shirts, button down shirts, jackets, and even baby items are getting the geek treatment in an effort to spread the geek chic.

"It is more subtle," Gailey explained. "It is another option to still maintain and express your geek cred."

"I think what is next for geek chic is apparel that acknowledges the identity of modern geeks as responsible adults who grew up as gamers," Sunter said about their new First Party line of clothes. "There is a place, now, for classy clothing that gamers can identify with."

Malki! said TopatoCo is expanding their selections with more colors and organically produced shirts in response to customer requests. Peterman said Think Geek is offering interactive shirts, like a shirt recently seen on "The Big Bang Theory" that plays music when you press buttons on the shirt.

Perhaps the geek cred can be summed up in the mantra at Jinx – "Get into it."

"Whatever you like, get into it," Gailey said. "Don't take a casual interest."

Never let it be said that geeks aren't into what ever "it" is. And as this geek will tell you, wearing your heart on your sleeve – or emblazoned across your chest – is a matter of pride.

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Filed under: Gaming • Geek Out! • Mathematics • NASA • pop culture • science • web comics


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April 8, 2010

Using satellites to find skeletons

Posted: 12:14 PM ET

Sometimes when you're looking for something, and you really want to find it, the best thing you can do is step back from the situation a bit.

That's kind of what happened recently for scientists in South Africa, who announced Thursday that they found a new and important link in the human family tree. The University of the Witwatersrand archeologists didn't find the skeletal remains of a new hominid species, Australopithecus sediba, just by trudging around on foot.

They used satellite images from Google Earth.

[Read CNN's story about the find]

In 2008, when they started their search in Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa, there were 130 known caves, which tend to yield archeological finds.

After the team surveyed the area with high-res satellite images, they discovered 500 caves, "even though the area is one of the most explored in Africa," writes Google's Michael Jones in a blog post. So, in effect, the satellites helped up the odds for a discovery - or at least gave researchers more places to look.

Google put together a cool list of other times satellite imagery has been used to make discoveries. I'll paste some highlights below, and let me know if you've heard of other instances. I'm sure NASA or others have used GPS to advance research, too.

Reef in Australia

A villa in Rome

Lizard in Mozambique

The fact that cows are magnetic (kind of)

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Filed under: Google • Google Earth • science • Scientists


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February 22, 2010

Is this AAAS, or Comic-Con?

Posted: 02:11 PM ET

Actor-turned-White House staffer Kalpen Modi, better known by his former name, Kal Penn, spoke two years ago at the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con 2008, promoting the "Harold and Kumar" sequel. This past weekend, he appeared in the very same convention center in a suit and tie, reading a statement from the White House.

Since I was in San Diego last year for Comic-Con, attending the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the very same venue this weekend was a little jarring. Instead of thousands of geeks clad in elaborate costumes to celebrate characters from comic books, movies, and TV shows, I was surrounded this time by thousands of scientists. Instead of networks and studios promoting their movies and shows, researchers were here explaining their work.

Seeing Kumar– I mean, Modi, in action as the Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement drove home the point that this was not a costume party anymore. Director Ron Howard also spoke at AAAS, further blurring the line between science and celebrity.

But Modi wasn't the only crossover between Comic-Con and AAAS. James Kakalios, technical consultant on "Watchmen" and a physicist at the University of Minnesota, delivered a version of the very same speech he gave about the science of comic-book heroes at Comic-Con 2008. And I acquired a lot of brochures at AAAS just like I did at Comic-Con, and even came away with some fun, geeky swag (a magnetic button that flashes brightly colored lights in honor of the 50th anniversary of the laser).

Of course, AAAS does not dominate the convention center like Comic-Con did; there are other events going on in various halls of the complex, including a home improvement and landscape show. The huge registration hall for Comic-Con was eerily empty this weekend. AAAS is believed to draw about 6,000 attendees; Comic-Con 2010 is slated for 126,000 people. It's like comparing a small town to the entire city of Hartford, Connecticut.

I would assume that at Comic-Con 2008 Kal Penn was surrounded by giddy fans who waited in line for hours to see him. On Friday, a much more subdued audience listened to him talk about partnerships between science and the arts.

That meant I had comparatively little competition in approaching Modi afterwards and asking the question we all want to know: Does he have any plans for going back into acting?

"Perhaps at some point," he told me, and then explained that many people have come from the private sector to the current administration. "I would hope to continue to serve for the next few years, and you know, after that, I'm not sure. I don’t have any, sort of, set plans after that."

And since this was not Comic-Con, I professionally waited until he walked away to blush, smile, and sigh like a giddy fan.

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Filed under: Movies • science


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February 19, 2010

How scientific are superheroes?

Posted: 04:02 PM ET

You've probably had moments watching science fiction films when you thought, "Naw, that couldn't happen." And it's true - sci-fi movies often contain elements that don't conform to the laws of physics.

But modern science can say a lot about the plausibility of such things as stopping an asteroid from destroying the planet, and these are teachable moments, experts said today at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California.

Take the asteroid example: films such as "When Worlds Collide" are good about estimating the impact of celestial objects hitting our planet, said Sidney Perkowitz, Emory University physicist and author of "Hollywood Science." In real life, the Tunguska Event, in which a meteor hit part of Siberia, Russia, in 1908, decimated hundreds of square miles of forest.

The Barringer Crater in Arizona, nearly a mile wide, was also created by a meteor. Science fiction movies, however, often incorrectly portray the "save the day moment," since not even an H-bomb has the power to deflect an asteroid, he said.

The powers of superheroes and villains do bring up important concepts in physics, said James Kakalios, technical consultant on the recent "Watchmen" movie and a physicist at the University of Minnesota. For instance, quantum tunneling - the idea that particles can pass through energy barriers - is how Dr. Manhattan teleports in "Watchmen" and how Kitty Pryde walks through walls in "X-Men." Dr. Manhattan's blue color can be explained through a phenomenon called Cerenkov radiation, he said, with the blue glow resulting from the leakage of high-energy electrons.

Believability is important to filmmakers because they don't want viewers' attention to drift away from the story, Kakalios said. He noticed, for instance, that in "Iron Man," Tony Stark is using the correct soldering tool and in the right way. "So you're not thinking about Robert Downey Jr. playing a role, you're thinking about Tony Stark making an Iron Man suit," he said.

You can watch Kakalios' popular YouTube video about the science of "Watchmen" to learn more. And watch for more on the science of superheroes on Monday on CNN.com.

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Filed under: science • technology


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January 12, 2010

Wi-Fi 'allergies' leave man homeless

Posted: 11:31 AM ET

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports a man claiming to suffer from electromagnetic sensitivity is suing his neighbor for refusing to disconnect her electronic devices.

Santa Fe, New Mexico resident Arthur Firstenberg claims that his neighbor Raphaela Monribot's use of electronic devices such as cell phones, computers, compact fluorescent lights and dimmer rheostats is aggravating his "electromagnetic sensitivity" and causing him to get sick.

"Within a day of [Monribot] moving in, I began to feel sick when I was in my house," Firstenberg writes in his affidavit. "The electric meter for my house is mounted on [Monribot's] house. Electromagnetic fields emitted in [Monribot's] house are transmitted by wire directly into my house."

A request for preliminary injunction claims Fristenberg's condition has left him homeless. Fristenberg "cannot stay in a hotel, because hotels and motels all employ wi-fi connections, which trigger a severe illness. If [Firstenberg] cannot obtain preliminary relief, he will be forced to continue to sleep in his car, enduring winter cold and discomfort, until this case can be heard."

The Santa Fe New Mexican notes "Firstenberg's motion is accompanied by dozens of notes from doctors, some dating back more than a decade, about his sensitivities."

However, scientific studies such as this 2005 trial at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Germany suggest electromagnetic sensitivity is strictly a psychosomatic disorder.

The major study endpoint was the ability of the subjects to differentiate between real magnetic stimulation and a sham condition. There were no significant differences between groups in the thresholds, neither of detecting the real magnetic stimulus nor in motor response.

We found no objective correlate of the self perception of being "electrosensitive." Overall, our experiment does not support the hypothesis that subjectively electrosensitive patients suffer from a physiological hypersensitivity to EMFs or stimuli.

Do you acknowledge Fristenberg, and others claiming electronic sensitivity, may be suffering real physiological effects and should be allowed to live free from electronic devices? Or should treatment be strictly psychological?

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Filed under: cell phones • computers • Medicine • mobile phones • online news • science


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November 6, 2009

Baguette-toting bird stalls atom smasher

Posted: 05:31 PM ET

This is too weird: A bird reportedly has dropped a "bit of baguette" onto the world's largest atom smasher, causing the machine to short out for a period of time.

It's just the latest mishap for the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, which scientists plan to use to get insight into the universe's origins. The LHC, which has a 17-mile track to circulate protons and is located underground on the French-Swiss border outside Geneva, Switzerland, is the largest particle accelerator in the world and cost about $10 billion.

The LHC booted up in September 2008, but technical problems forced it to shut down shortly after its launch. When the mystery bird reportedly dropped a piece of bread onto the particle accelerator's outdoor machinery earlier this week, the device was not turned on, according to reports, and therefore did not suffer major damage.

Had the machine been activated, the baguette incident could have caused the LHC to go into shutdown mode, the UK's The Register reports. The Register quotes Dr. Mike Lamont, a worker at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (or CERN), as saying that "a bit of baguette" had been dropped on the LHC, possibly by a bird.

A call to CERN's press office was not immediately returned.

ZDNet writes that the baguette in question did not have a chocolate filling:

The [CERN] spokesperson said the bread, which was "naked and unfilled", had caused a short circuit when dropped on an electrical installation that supplies energy to the massive experiment. While the bird was unconfirmed as the definite culprit, it had been spotted beforehand near the substation carrying bread, said the spokesperson.

The avian accident has prompted a number of online parodies and jokes (this photo is my favorite). CNET UK, a CNN content partner, writes jokingly that it's clear the bird was French since it was carrying a baguette:

We're not ones for crude for national stereotyping, but the detail that the bird dropped a bit of baguette suggests this must have occurred on the French side of the LHC. It's unclear whether the bird was actually riding a bike, or indeed wearing onions and a beret.

A Discover blog exclaims: "Zut alors!"

And CrunchGear says the strange incident shows the LHC is "so abhorrent to nature that the universe is contriving to snuff it out."

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Filed under: Large Hadron Collider • science • Space • universe


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July 15, 2009

NASA to junk space station in 2016

Posted: 10:33 AM ET

After a decade of costly construction, the International Space Station is nearing completion. But NASA won't have long to enjoy the achievement.

According to an article from the Washington Post, NASA space station program manager Michael T. Suffredini raised eyebrows when, at a public hearing last month, he declared flatly that NASA plans to de-orbit the station in 2016.

That means the $100 billion research facility, which has been circling Earth since 1998, will ultimately burst into flames as it reenters the Earth's atmosphere and crashes into the Pacific Ocean.

Budget constraints and the lack of a shuttle program, which is set to retire in 2010, may have persuaded NASA to end the space station program.

The Washington Post explains:

The rap on the space station has always been that it was built primarily to give the space shuttle somewhere to go. Now, with the shuttle being retired at the end of 2010, the station is on the spot. U.S. astronauts will be able to reach the station only by getting rides on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

There is no official lobbying to extend the mission, but NASA's plans have met with criticism. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) argues, "If we've spent a hundred billion dollars, I don't think we want to shut it down in 2015."

While speaking to a panel charged by the Obama administration with reviewing the entire human spaceflight program, Nelson affirmed, "My opinion is it would be a travesty to de-orbit this thing... If we get rid of this darned thing in 2015, we're going to cede our leadership in human exploration."

What do you feel should be done with the International Space Station? Does the initial $100 billion investment justify extending the program, or should we simply cut our losses and look toward a new future of space exploration?

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Filed under: Astronomy • International Space Station • NASA • science • Space


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April 1, 2009

Volcano belches 'tweets'

Posted: 01:56 PM ET

I tweet, you tweet, but who knew a volcano could tweet?

Mount Redoubt in Alaska has been belching out steam and ash for several weeks now. Images and updates have been streaming out of the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) at a steady pace because nothing seems to grab the attention of the public like a good volcano eruption.

AVO is using web technology - live-streaming pictures from the mountain using web cams -– to get more information out to a hungry public. Their Web site has enough techno-speak to make any geologist dance with glee.

But what of the average person who just wants to know when Redoubt is about to burp?

Enter Twitter.

AVO is using the microblogging site (@alaska_avo) to alert followers about steam emissions, ash plumes, and aviation advisories. The tweets are relatively simple (i.e.: There was a small explosion at Redoubt at 16:07 AKDT), but scientists use Twittermail to give more details.

Ken Woods, one of the IT gurus for AVO, said a mom’s concern for her son gave them the idea of using Twitter. “There was a lady in the Midwest whose son lives in Alaska, and she wrote to us asking us to use Twitter so she could find out what the conditions were like for her son,” Woods said.

She was just the beginning - now more than 6,000 people follow Redoubt's status on Twitter. Woods says about 25 percent of those people have relatives living near the volcano. Even a 98-year-old woman in Orlando, Florida, is following the Redoubt tweets on Twitter because her grandson lives in Anchorage.

Woods said having people follow the volcano on Twitter helps keep the load on his main Web site more manageable. AVO is monitoring more than 130 volcanic areas – including 50 that have been active since 1760.

The Redoubt tweets appear to come from the operations center’s log entries. A recent post indicated a change requested by some of the 6,000 people following Redoubt. The tweet read, “If ops center makes log entry 75% equal to immedatly prior entry, will b sent to log, but not twitter. Eliminates same tweet over and over.”

Customer service from a volcano! Now if we can just get earthquakes and hurricanes to follow suit.

- Larry Frum, Internet Broadcasting, for CNN.com

Filed under: science • Volcanoes


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March 24, 2009

Final thoughts from TEDx USC

Posted: 01:00 PM ET

Some final thoughts from our bloggers at Monday's TEDx conference at USC's Stevens Institute for Innovation:

Kellee Santiago

Stevens director Krisztina Holly just announced to the audience that the TEDx USC event is currently No. 2 on Twitter, second only to Jennifer Aniston. She read some of the tweets aloud, many of which are entertaining: "A plethora of hotties at #tedxusc — hooray for smart girls!"

Kellee Santiago, co-founder of thatgamecompany is now speaking on video games, calling them a "catharsis." Santiago has pioneered the creation of gentle, arty games that are closer to visual poetry than traditional, goal-oriented video games.

"How many times does a generation get to witness the birth of an entirely new artistic medium?" she asked the audience. As soon as people recognize video games as an artistic medium, Santiago said, then we can realize the significant impact that these games have on society.

Video games, like radio and TV before them, have been written off as "mindless entertainment." But Santiago believes they will grow within the next century to be more powerful than TV and radio were in the 20th century. "I do think we are on the precipice of an extremely exciting time right now," she said.

Later we heard from Markus Nordberg, resources coordinator for the ATLAS project at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - an underground atom-smasher the size of a seven-story building on the border between Switzerland and France. The goal of ATLAS is to recreate the conditions that might have existed very shortly after the Big Bang — and in doing so, better understand how our universe works.

Nordberg said the project uses a lightning-fast camera with 100 megapixels — enough to fill up multiple iPods with data every second. If ATLAS were a telescope, it would be able to spot a grain of sand on Neptune. “It’s complex,” Nordberg exclaimed, drawing chuckles from the crowd.

It took 15 years to build ATLAS, Nordberg said, and during that time, the hundreds of scientists who built it became family. Nordberg identified three distinguishing traits of the scientists that make the ATLAS collaboration possible:
1. They have the vision to work together to achieve something extraordinary.
2. They have the commitment to contribute.
3. They have a tolerance for freedom and individual expression of ideas.

“We all have our different stories and our different passions, but we all worked together and share the same goal,” he said.

Finally, USC Marshall School of Business professor Dave Logan talked about how people, as social beings, naturally form tribes and tribal cultures. Logan, co-author of a book called "Tribal Leadership," classifies five stages of tribal cultures:

Stage 1 (2% of all tribes): The culture of prisons and gangs
Stage 2 (25% of tribes): The culture of DMVs ("How can people be so dumb and yet live?")
Stage 3 (48% of tribes): "I'm great and you're not!" (It tends to happen with smart, successful people—such as those at TEDx USC)
Stage 4 (22% of tribes): "We're great"
Stage 5 (2% of tribes): "Life is great"

The greatest challenge for most of us, Logan said, is moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4.

For more on TEDx, click here.

- USC students Kate Mather, Greg McDonald, Larissa Puro

Filed under: science • technology • video games


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Ringing bells at Tedx USC

Posted: 11:37 AM ET

One of the challenges in the world of digital innovation is the ability to recreate the human face. During his talk at the TEDx USC conference, Paul Debevec explained that while computer graphics in movies and video games have exploded in recent years, audiences still notice inconsistencies in digitally created human faces (a reason why many video game characters wear helmets, as in "Halo 3").

Paul Debevec

But Debevec, associate director of graphics research at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, said that digital-imaging technology is fast improving. The work is painstaking and precise, requiring a multi-layered process to capture the skin and facial expressions in different forms.

From oil levels in the pores to the way wrinkles move, the human face is documented and the computerized data merged to create a life-like resemblance. In the near future, the technology Debevec is developing will be applied to whole human bodies. The aim is to create near-flawless digital human clones, with differences subtle enough not to be caught by the audience.

The results, as Debevec showcased at the TEDxUSC conference, have already been seen in "Spiderman 2," "Hancock," and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Didn't notice? That just means it's working, he said.

"We leverage a lot from the fact that computers are literally a million times more powerful than they were when we started," said Debevec. However, his work won't be putting actors out of work anytime soon. Fundamentally, he said, good emotional acting will always be the basis for virtual characters.

The USC audience then experienced the entrancing music of Salman Ahmad, frontman of the international music group Junoon, which blends rock with traditional Sufi devotional music. Ahmad explained he was introduced to rock music as a high school student when he saw Led Zeppelin perform at Madison Square Garden. After the concert, he decided that music was the career for him.

The anecdote is emblematic of the spontaneous innovation we've been exposed to in this event so far. Ahmad's parents wanted him to become a doctor - a noble profession. But instead, as a pioneering musician, he has touched millions more lives. Ahmad is a UN Goodwill Ambassador and defied death threats to play the first rock concert in Kashmir.

Ahmad's spontaneous decision to pick up a guitar, and to create something that had never been created, has empowered profound change, brightened the world and helped spread human understanding. As Ahmad himself noted, "When you see with the heart, all masks fall down."

During his performance Ahmad was joined onstage by a surprise guest: Melissa Etheridge, who dueted with him on "Ring the Bells," a song they wrote together. Audience members joined in by ringing hundreds of tiny porcelain bells - Monday's version of a concert lighter - that had been handed out without explanation earlier.

"Differences are what keeps the change from happening," said Etheridge, explaining how people of diverse cultures must overcome their differences in the quest for peace.

- USC students Matt Harrison, Emily Henry, Kate Mather and Deborah Stokol

Filed under: science • technology


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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