Thursday, March 18, 2010

A fascinating little beastie

Back in 2004 I was living in New York and commuting between New York and Washington, DC on the Acela. I was working in a fairly rural part of Virginia and was lucky enough to accidentally experience a once in 17 years event: the emergence of Magicicada Brood X.

(Picture from Wikipedia)

Now I realize that most people probably don't think that being in a place where millions of large winged insects appear from the ground and make a deafening noise in search of a mate is fun. But Magicicada is so cool that it's hard to miss their emergence. And Magicicada loves prime numbers.

For that reason, Magicicada Brood X (which lives along the Eastern coast of the US) is place number 127 in The Geek Atlas. Your next chance to meet the little beastie is 2021.

This particular brood spends 17 years underground living off the sap inside the roots of trees. Once ready to become an adult it burrows upwards and climbs its tree. Then when high up in the tree it molts and spreads its wings.

Once ready to fly it makes a humming sound which, given that millions emerge all at the same time, fills the air with an incredible din. The female cicadas make a clicking sound and between the humming and clicking the males and females find each other and mate.

They live only a few weeks above ground and new baby cicadas fall to the grown and burrow to the roots to start another 17 year wait.

To get a feeling for what it's like to be around when Magicicada makes its appearance, here's Sir David Attenborough:

There are other cicadas that live on a 7 and 13 year cycle. All these cycles are based around a prime number of years. The hypothesis is that the cicada uses a combination of emergence en masse and a prime numbered cycle to avoid predators. A prime numbered cycle means that the cicada rarely meets a predator and mass emergence would overwhelm any predator around.

A prime numbered cycle avoids predators because it doesn't have any factors. Suppose that the cicada had an 18 year cycle, any predator that peaked every 2, 3, 6 or 9 years could synchronize with the cicada and always meet it and eat it. By having a prime numbered cycle the cicada rarely meets a predator and predators have a hard time synchronizing with it.

For a more detailed look at the prime numbered cycle, you can read the paper Prime Number Selection of Cycles in a Predator-Prey Model.

PS If you've enjoyed this, consider buying my book.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

London Transport Museum: Acton Depot Weekend

This past weekend the London Transport Museum held an open weekend at its Acton Depot where they keep a collection of trams, trolley cards, buses and underground trains, plus all the associated equipment. They only open the depot twice a year so this was a chance to see some things that are rarely open to the public.

I didn't include this museum in The Geek Atlas but after a visit it's likely a candidate for a volume 2 since it is packed with interesting stuff.

Like a really big collection of old underground signs:

Or shielding used while constructing the tunnels for the London Underground:

And speaking of the Underground, here's a power control panel with meters indicating hundreds of amps and some serious on/off switches:

And a lovely mercury arc rectifier used to turn AC into DC (the Underground uses 630V DC power).

And here are the wheels of a 1930s trolley car:

And here's the control panel from an Otis elevator:

But the highlight was a ride on the prototype Routemaster RM-1 bus. I forgot to photograph it, so here's a picture from Wikipedia:


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

£1,000 for Bletchley Park thanks to The Geek Atlas

When The Geek Atlas was published in June 2009, O'Reilly's UK arm decided to pledge to donate 50p per copy sold in the UK to help fund Bletchley Park.

O'Reilly has now made good on that pledge and with almost 2,000 copies of the book sold in the UK it has donated £1,000 to Bletchley Park.

And the 50p per copy pledge continues. All copies of The Geek Atlas sold in the UK result in a 50p donation to keep this wonderful place alive.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Geek Weekend (Paris Edition), Day 4: Institut Pasteur

Leaving my SO in bed at the hotel with a nasty bacterial infection and some antibiotics, I went with timely irony to visit the home and laboratory of Louis Pasteur at the Institut Pasteur. (It's pretty easy to find since it has a conveniently named stop on the Paris metro: Pasteur).

At the Institut Pasteur there's a wonderful museum that covers the life and work of Louis Pasteur (and his wife). It's housed in the building (above) where the Pasteurs lived. There's a single room of Pasteur's science and the rest of the house is Pasteur's home; so a visit is partly scienfitic and partly like visiting any old home. I was mostly interested in the laboratory (although seeing how he lived---pretty darn well!---was also worth it).

Pasteur wrote standing up at a raised table (much like old bank clerks used to use) and his lab is full of specimens that he worked on. There's a nice display about chirality which Pasteur had initially worked on while study tartaric acid in wine. (Pasteur determined that there were two forms of tartaric acid by painstakingly sorting tiny crystals by hand).

The rest of the lab covers immunization, pasteurization and the germ theory of disease. There was a nice display of Pasteur's bottles of chicken broth that he used to demonstrate the germ theory of disease. The bottles contain boiled broth and have a long tapering curved neck. Although the neck is open the shape prevents dust from entering and the broth sits undisturbed (as it has for 150 years).

In the same room there's also a big bottle of horse's blood that looks fresh despite its age, and there are detailed displays about immunization (and especially Pasteur's rabies vaccine).

The museum also has a lot of equipment used by Pasteur, such as vacuum pumps and autoclaves. It all has that lovely Victorian feel of wrought iron and brass.

The oddest part of the museum is the Pasteurs' burial chamber built beneath the house and in a totally over the top Byzantine style.

Note that the museum is only open in the afternoons during the week and that you must bring photo ID with you to get in since it is inside the Institut Pasteur.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Geek Weekend (Paris Edition), Day 3: The Arago Medallions

The old Paris Meridian (which was in use up until 1914) passes not far from The Pantheon which I visited to see Foucault's Pendulum. It's actual longitude today is 2°20′14.025″.

To mark the old meridian the French decided to install some art work and they commissioned an artist called Jan Dibbets to build something appropriate. What he did was embed brass disks in the streets of Paris marking the meridian and turning the whole city into a sort of treasure hunt.

These Arago medallions (which celebrate the meridian and the life of François Arago) cut through the very heart of Paris. They make a wonderful way to see Paris at going on a treasure hunt. And the meridian goes to the very heart of something important: the meter. The original definition of a meter was based on the length of the Paris meridian from the north pole to the equator. Arago surveyed the meridian and came up with a very precise definition for this fundamental unit of measure.

Here's a photo I took of one on Boulevard Saint-Germain:

There's a full list of the medallions (in French) here. And here's my English translation of the list (the numbers in parentheses give the number of medallions to be found there):

Position of the medallions along the meridian from north to south

  • XVIIIe arrondissement

    • 18 av. de la Porte de Montmartre, in front of the municipal library (1)

    • Intersection of rue René Binet and av. de la Porte de Montmartre (1)

    • 45/47 av. Junot (1)

    • 15 rue S. Dereure (1)

    • 3 and 10 av. Junot (2)

    • Mire du Nord, 1 av. Junot, in a private courtyard with controlled access (1)

    • 79 rue Lepic (1)

  • IXe arrondissement

    • 21 boulevard de Clichy, on the pavement (2)

    • 5 rue Duperré (1)

    • 69/71 rue Pigalle (2)

    • 34 rue de Châteaudun, inside the courtyard of the Ministry for National Education (2)

    • 34 rue de Châteuadun (1)

    • 18/16 and 9/11 boulevard Haussmann, in front of the restaurant (2)

    • Intersection of rue Taitbout, in front of the restaurant and 24 boulevard des Italiens (2)

  • IIe arrondissement

    • 16 rue du 4 septembre (1)

    • 15 rue saint Augustin

  • Ie arrondissement

    • 24 rue de Richelieu (1)

    • 9 rue de Montpensier (1)

    • At the Palais Royal: Montpensier and Chartres Colonnades, Nemours Gallery, passageway on place Colette and place Colette in front of the café (7)

    • Intersection of place Colette and Conseil d'État, rue saint Honoré (1)

    • place du Palais royal, on the rue de Rivoli side (1)

    • rue de Rivoli, at the entrance of the passageway (1)

    • At the Louvre, Richelieu Wing: French sculpture room and in front of the escalator (3)

    • At the Louvre, Napoléon Courtyard, behind the pyramid (5)

    • At the Louvre, Denon Wing: Roman antiquity room, stairs and corridor (3)

    • Quai du Louvre, near the entrance to the Daru pavillion (1)

    • port du Louvre, not far from the Pont des Arts (1)

  • VIe arrondissement

    • port des Saints-Pères (1)

    • quai Conti, near the place de l'Institut (2)

    • place de l'institut and rue de Seine (1)

    • 3 and 12 rue de Seine (4)

    • Intersection of rue de Seine and rue des Beaux-Arts (1)

    • 152 and 125-127 boulevard Saint-Germain (2)

    • 28 rue de Vaugirard, on the Sénat side (1)

    • In the Jardin de Luxembourg, on asphalt and cement surfaces (10)

    • rue Auguste Comte, at the entrance to the garden(1)

    • av. de l'Observatoire on the pavement near the garden (2)

    • Intersection of av. de l'Observatoire and rue Michelet (1)

    • jardin Marco Polo (3)

    • Intersection of av. de l'Observatoire and rue d'Assas (1)

    • place Camille Jullian (2)

    • On the ground at the intersection of av. Denfert Rochereau and av. de l'Observatoire, on the Observatoire side (1)

    • av. de l'Observatoire (2)

  • XIVe arrondissement

    • Courtyard of the Observatoire de Paris (2)

    • Inside the Observatoire (1)

    • Terrace and garden in the private area of the Observatoire (7)

    • boulevard Arago and place de l'Ile de Sein (6)

    • 81 rue du faubourg Saint Jacques (1)

    • place Saint Jacques (1)

    • parc Montsouris (9)

    • boulevard Jourdan (2)

    • Cité universitaire, on the axis from the pavillon Canadien to the pavillon Cambodgien, the final one is behind the pavillion (10)

This special Google Map has many of them on it, the rest you'll have find by wandering:

View Paris Meridian in a larger map


Friday, November 06, 2009

Geek Weekend (Paris Edition), Day 2: Foucault's Pendulum

Not very far from The Curie Museum is the former church and now burial place for the great and good men (and one woman) of France: The Pantheon. Inside the Pantheon is the original Foucault's Pendulum.

The pendulum was first mounted in the Pantheon in 1851 to demonstrate that the Earth is rotating. The pendulum swings back and forth in the same plane, but the Earth moves. Relative to the floor (and to the convenient hour scale provided) the pendulum appears to rotate.

The pendulum is on a 67m long cable hanging from the roof of the Pantheon. The bob at the end of the cable weight 27kg. In the Pantheon the pendulum appears to rotate at 11 degrees per hour (which means it takes more than a day to return to its original position). If it were mounted at the North Pole it would 'rotate' once every 24 hours, the pendulum's period of rotation depends on the latitude diminishing to 0 degrees per hour at the equator (i.e. it doesn't 'rotate' at all).

If you take a look at the photograph above you can see that I was there just after 1200. The scale shows the current time measured by the pendulum.

The actual movement of the pendulum is only hard to understand because the common sense assumption is that the floor is not moving, but of course it is. It appears that what we are observing is a pendulum swinging above a fixed floor.

But the floor is actually moving because of the rotation of the Earth. That makes understanding the pendulum's motion harder. The important factor is the Coriolis Effect (sometimes erroneously called the Coriolis Force).

The simplest way to visualize the Coriolis Effect is to imagine firing a gun at the Equator straight northwards along a meridian. Because the Earth rotates the bullet will not land on the meridian, the Earth will have moved and the bullet will land to the west of the meridian. It looks as though a force has acted on the bullet to push it sideways. Of course, there's no actual force, it's just that the frame of reference (i.e. where the observer is) is not stationary.

Essentially the same thing happens with Foucault's Pendulum. The observer and the floor are not stationary and so the pendulum has an apparent motion.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Geek Weekend (Paris Edition), Day 1: The Curie Museum

So, it was off to Paris for the weekend via Eurotunnel and I managed to fit in four places from The Geek Atlas in four days. I was staying in a hotel in the Latin Quarter which is a stone's throw from... The Curie Museum.

Here's Marie Curie's laboratory:

The museum covers the lives and works of two Nobel Prize-winning couples: Pierre and Marie Curie (they discovered Radium and Polonium) and their daughter Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot (they discovered artificial radioactivity: you could make a substance radioactive by bombarding it with alpha particles).

Their Nobel Prizes are on display as is the equipment that they used (including the apparatus for measuring radiation by measuring ionization of air---which itself had been discovered by Becquerel).

Here are the Nobel Prizes:

Although I love the science section of the museum (including the laboratory where they worked with a piece of paper from one of their notebooks with its radioactive thumb print---they weren't too careful about handling radioactive elements), the best bit is the section on the craze for radium products in the 1920s and 1930s.

Here's an ad for a beauty cream that contains radium and thorium. Gives you that special glow!

Here you'll find make up that contains thorium and radium, special radium wool to keep babies warm, a radium dispenser so you could have a radioactive soak in the bath and more...

Seems stupid now, but back then the dangers were either ignored or unknown, and radioactivity seemed like a wondrous thing (especially since it was discovered early on that it would kill or reduce tumors). I wonder what products we are feeding ourselves that in 70 years we'll consider down right dangerous.

There's a nice web site of radioactive quack cures which make my skin crawl. Yes, I'm going to take a radioactive suppository to boost my sex life tonight! Move over Viagra, here's Vita Radium.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Der Geek Atlas

The Geek Atlas ist jetzt auch in Deutsch.

Kaufen Sie es hier.

Die lebendige Geschichte der Wissenschaften ist überall um uns herum, man muss nur wissen, wo man hinschauen muss. Mit diesem einzigartigen Reiseführer kann man 128 Orte auf der Welt kennen lernen, die für bedeutsame Ereignisse in Wissenschaft und Technik stehen. Erlebe das Foucaultsches Pendel, das in Paris schwingt; erfahre Interessantes über das größste Wissenschaftsmuseum der Welt, das "Deutsche Museum" in München; besuche einen Ableger des Newtons Apfelbaums am Trinity College in Cambridge und vieles, vieles mehr...

Jeder Ort in Der Geek-Atlas stellt eine außerordentliche Entdeckung oder Erfindung in den Mittelpunkt und befasst sich darüber hinaus auch mit den Menschen und Geschichten, die hinter diesen Erfindungen stehen. Alle Orte werden mit interessanten Fotos vorgestellt und die Themen mit zahlreichen Zeichnungen illustriert. Das Buch ist nach Ländern aufgeteilt, für alle interessanten Orte werden auch -- neben nützlichen Tourismusinformationen -- die genauen GPS-Daten aufgeführt.

Eine kleine Auswahl der interessanten Orte: * Bletchley Park in Großbritannien, wo der Enigma-Code geknackt wurde * die Alan-Turing-Gedenkstätte in Manchester * die Hornantenne in New Jersey, wo die Big-Bang-Theorie bestätigt wurde * das National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade in Maryland (USA) * die Trinity Test Site in New Mexico, wo die erste Atombombe gezündet wurde * das National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, wo das Schaf Dolly ausgestopft ausgestellt wird Jeder Ort, der im Der Geek-Atlas vorgestellt wird, hat einen besonderen mathematischen, technischen oder wissenschaftlichen Hintergrund. Orte, die das Geek-Herz schneller schlagen lassen.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nerd is the new normal

When I was writing The Geek Atlas there was a big debate about the title. My original title included the word geek, but O'Reilly quickly overruled it. By the time the final title was agreed, we went with a title that O'Reilly themselves suggested: The Geek Atlas.

And then, just the other day, a US TV station did a report called "Nerd is the new normal".

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Geek Side Trip: CERN

While over in Geneva for the Virus Bulletin 2009 conference I managed to make a side trip to see CERN. It turned out to be a great afternoon because the tour was guided by actual physicists and I took a school trip.

I am a little old for it, but when I organized my trip I was told that I would be added to a group from Steyning Grammar School. There I was with 23 final year A-level students on a whirlwind trip to Switzerland. They were extremely nice kids, and I could easily imagine that teaching such a group would be incredibly rewarding.

The visit started with a talk and a film. This told the story of CERN itself (it's almost 55 years old) and described the operation of the Large Hadron Collider.

Here's what part of the LHC looks like (this is a mock-up). The large blue thing is one of the super-conducting magnets. There are 1,232 of these in the 27km ring, each weighs about 27 tonnes.

After that we were bussed over to where the superconducting magnets used in the LHC are received and tested. This involves cooling them down to very close to 0 K (actually 1.7 K), turning on the pair of magnets and inserting a rotating rod inside the two tubes where the particle beam will pass.

Here's a view of a slice through one of the magnets. The two tubes in the middle are where the particle beams pass. The tubes contain a hard vacuum and are surrounded by super-conductors that form the magnet. The entire thing is bathed in liquid helium by a network of pipes.

The rotating rods inserted to test the magnets contain coils that have an electric current induced in them. Measuring the electric current it's possible to confirm that the magnetic field inside the tubes is perfect. The magnetic field is what bends the counter-rotating beams slightly so that they end up tracing out a circle.

This is a detail of one of the particle bean tubes with the valve used for maintaining the hard vacuum. I was surprised how small it was.

And here's a shot of a single dipole magnet ready to be attached to the test apparatus.

And if you are going to move one of those around you need a robot. This one floats around on an air cushion.

To join the magnets together in the circle you need a flexible coupling. The Bulgarian physicist who showed us this bit explained how the magnets were coupled and soldered together: 125,000 separate joints! This is where the LHC failure occurred.

As well as the magnets for bending the beam the beam has to be accelerated. That's achieved by one of these:

And to keep the beam focussed you need another sort of magnet (I don't have a picture of those, but there are 392 of them).

After all that we headed over to the AMS which is a satellite that will be attached to the International Space Station. The highlight of that part was that the designer of it (and friendly Italian man called Giovanni Ambrosi) was on hand to explain what he'd been up to for the last 15 years.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Geek Atlas: now on your iPhone

Today, O'Reilly released my book, The Geek Atlas, as an iPhone application. It's the complete text of the book on the iPhone. Since the book is organized as small chapters it's very readable on a small screen.

The neatest feature is that latitude and longitude given for each place in the book is clickable and takes you straight to that location on Google Maps.

And it's only $5.99 or £3.49.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Back to normal life... time for an official release event for my book, The Geek Atlas

Now that the dust has settled on my Alan Turing petition with the phone call from the Prime Minister, it's back to normal life for me. Part of that's a book release event for The Geek Atlas.

If you are in London on Saturday, September 19 and fancy meeting me (for whatever strange reason!) then come join me at the Brunel Museum at 1400.

Full details of the event are here.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Geek Weekend, Day 2: The Brunel Museum

So after yesterday's trip to Bletchley Park I stayed in London and hopped over to a spot not far from Tower Bridge where Marc Brunel and his son Isambard built the first tunnel under a navigable river: the Thames Tunnel. The tunnel was dug out by hand using a tunnel shield (which is the basis of all tunnel building to the present day). Workers stood inside a metal cage pressed against the undug earth and removed boards, dug in a few inches and replaced the boards. Once the digging was done the entire structure was forced forwards a few centimeters and bricklayers would fill in behind.

The tunnel has a rich and varied history and is still in use today (read the Wikipedia link above to learn more). The entrance to the tunnel was through a massive circular tube (a caisson) which the Brunels built above ground and then sunk it into place. The entrance has been closed for about 140 years and is being renovated, but I was lucky enough to be taken into it by the curator of the Brunel Museum.

The museum displays works by the Brunels and runs tours through the tunnel itself. The grand entrance hall will be reopened to the public in September. Before that here's a shot of me standing in the interior of the entrance about 15 meters underground.

Image credit: Jonathan Histed

The diagonal line on the wall is the remains of where the grand staircase came down and brought visitors into the tunnel.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Geek Weekend, Day 1: Bletchley Park

Left to my own devices to the weekend I decided to embark on a Geek Weekend with visits to two places within easy reach of London. Today I visited Bletchley Park which is simply wonderful for any geek out there.

Bletchley Park is where the cryptanalysts of the Second World War worked in great secrecy (including Alan Turing) to break the Nazi German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers. To break them they used a combination of intimate knowledge of language, mathematics and machines.

Here's a Nazi German Enigma machine:

And here's a look inside one of the rotors inside an Enigma machine to see the wiring:

Two of the code breaking machines have been reconstructed. One is the Turing Bombe, an electromechanical machine made to break the Enigma cipher. Here's a look at the wiring in the back of the Bombe:

The other machine is the Colossus, a binary computer built to decipher Lorenz. Enigma is far more famous than Lorenz, but I have a soft spot for the Lorenz code because of its close relationship to modern cryptography. Here's a Lorenz machine:

While I was there I signed a large stack of copies of my book, The Geek Atlas. If you are at Bletchley Park and pop into the shop you'll be able to buy a signed copy if that's your thing. Of course, Bletchley Park, Enigma, Lorenz and the National Museum of Computing (also on site) are covered.

50p from every copy of The Geek Atlas goes to Bletchley Park (if the book is bought in the UK) and so the folks at Bletchley treated me to a special geek moment: a chance to meet Tony Sale who worked at MI-5 and reconstructed the Lorenz breaking machine Colossus. He took me round the back of the machine, and past the No Admittance sign to see it in operation. A geek treat if ever there was one.

The Lorenz code is essentially binary. Letters were transmitted using the Baudot Code which is a five-bit code. To encrypt the Lorenz machine created a pseudo-random sequence of Baudot codes and then XORed them with the message to be transmitted. If both transmitting and receiving machines generated the same pseudo-random sequence then the nice property of XOR that if you perform the same operation twice you get back to where you started. Thus XORing once with the pseudo-random sequence gave you the ciphertext to be transmitted, XORing again gave you back the original message.

Breaking this binary code was achieved with a binary computer. After giving me a behind-the-scenes look at Colossus, Tony Sale stood for a portrait in front of the machine:

And behind the machine is where the valve-action is:

Standing and see the Turing Bombe, staring into Turing's office in Hut 8, being taken around the back of Colossus by the man who put it back together, and getting to see more Enigmas, Lorenzs and Typexs than anyone could ask for made it a real treat.

The National Museum of Computing is Britain's answer to the wonderful Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. It contains many machines from the mainframe through the 8-bit era of British computing. All the machines are working or being restored. If you've never seen core memory, massive hard disk packs the size of washing machines, or just Commodore PET it's worth visiting (and it's right next door to Colossus).

Lastly, it's worth knowing that the National Museum of Computing despite being part of the ticket price to Bletchley Park actually receives no money from them. Please consider either donating money directly to them (I gladly emptied my pockets of change) or buying something in their shop.

And tomorrow it's a step back into the 19th century with a special visit to a place important in the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Watching the Google Birth of The Geek Atlas

Back in December of 2008 I set up a job on one of my servers that once a day searched Google for the title of my book, The Geek Atlas. This job grab the page returned by Google and stored it away.

The first time I ran the search there were 254 pages referencing the term "The Geek Atlas". Most of these were related to Amazon and O'Reilly and were placeholder pages for the book (which wasn't going to come out until June 2009).

I've now processed the data and the chart below shows the number of pages returned by Google per day up to today.

Today there are around 45,000 pages returned by Google. But the curious thing is that the search results show a number of spikes. These spikes are as follows:

1. June 10, 2009 jumped to 82,100 from 7,300 and then back down again the next day
2. June 19, 2009 jumped to 76,500 from 29,600 and then back down again two days later
3. July 13, 2009 jumped to 14,000 from 48,300 and then back down again a day later

So, what happened on those days? The nearest I can come to an explanation is the following:

1. June 10, 2009: Jason Kottke mentioned the book.
2. June 19, 2009: Wired published a full review of the book.
3. July 13, 2009: The BBC published a video and article about the book.

What I'm guessing happens is that the content is syndicated or stolen for use on a variety of short-lived web sites. Hence the spike. If I'm right it tells us that Google is very, very fast at updating its index.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

If you build it, they will ignore it

The other day I came across a post about being an iPhone developer. It's an interesting look inside the mind of someone who made some good money for a small amount of effort with a non-original idea.

I think the key part comes when he says:

Blocked hit the App Store in early September 2008. I had a modest amount of downloads at first. And then, right after Christmas, sales jumped. I’m not sure what led to Blocked’s being chosen as a staff favorite, but I know that once I started actively promoting it through advertising, Web forums, YouTube, and Twitter, I saw an increase in activity.

In many ways the hard part comes after you've created something.

Take my book, The Geek Atlas, for example. I started writing it in May 2008 and spent 6 months full-time writing and researching. I stopped working and just worked on the book.

In November 2008, I handed the book to O'Reilly and in June of this year the book was published. It was a lot of work by me (and others) to get the book out. Now, do you think anyone cares how much work it was? Does any of that mean it'll sell?


What matters is promotion. I wrote it, it doesn't mean people will buy it. And the main reason they won't buy it is they've never heard of it. The same applies to the sales of iPhone apps.

There are over 25,000 iPhone apps and a small number of slots on the iTunes main page where you can see top apps or recommendations. This is analogous to My book's one of many, many books and it sure gets a boost when it's on one of Amazon's top-N lists, but what really matters is promotion.

If you've made the effort to create something, make the effort to promote it.

For example, my book was given lots of airtime by Leo Laporte and Steve Gibson on the Security Now #199 podcast. Last week there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about it and the same day there was another article in The Times (of London). All of these articles came about because I went out and promoted the book. You can do the same for an iPhone app.

To get my book mentioned in as many high impact places as possible I made a list of every newspaper, magazine, blog and podcast I'd like to see it in. Then I went and found the relevant editor, blog owner, podcaster, etc. I obtained their email addresses. I wrote individual emails to every single one of them, tailored to their publication. Those that responded got free review copies of the book.

In one case, the San Francisco Chronicle, they asked me to write an article for them about the book.

It was a lot of work to make those things happen, but the only way to make a creative work successful is for people to hear about it.

And it doesn't end there. The promotion continues to make sure that people actually received review copies. To see if they have questions and know how to contact me (I handed out my mobile phone number). And I've recorded videos promoting the book.

At some point I realized that O'Reilly wasn't going to have the time to exploit the domain name that I'd persuaded them to buy. So, I got it from them (thank you!) and set up my own site there. The site is all part of the promotion process.

Most recently I've been asking people who've read the book if they'd be willing to write reviews on Amazon. That's an important part of getting the book into people's hands since I (and everyone else) reads the reviews. I've been doing this by asking people who mention the book on Twitter if they'd write a review. You can search geek atlas and see exactly what I and others have said. (And, BTW, if you've read it please consider writing an honest review on Amazon)

It's not enough to create, you have to market.

PS I've ignored all the wonderful efforts made by the staff of O'Reilly in promoting my book. I didn't mean to downplay your work... I'm just making a point about the effort it takes to get people to hear about The Geek Atlas.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

The Geek Atlas helping to save Bletchley Park

When I was creating the original list of places in The Geek Atlas there were a few places that caused my heart to beat a little faster just recalling visits to them. One of those places was Bletchley Park.

Bletchley Park combines cryptography, the Second World War and the out-and-out genius Alan Turing. How could I not include Bletchley Park? It's the place Enigma and Lorenz were broken. Enigma is most famous, but I find Lorenz more fascinating because of its use of binary, pseudorandom numbers and and the XOR operation (but that's another story---told in my book).

And now it's been restored to its wartime glory. Yet it is in severe financial difficulty and has recently been denied further funding by the British government. Some months ago I donated as much money as I could afford to help save Bletchley Park.

So, when O'Reilly (the publisher) of my book suggested that they would donate 50p for every copy of my book sold in the UK in the next 12 months I jumped at the chance to help.

So, if you buy The Geek Atlas in the UK you are getting a fascinating book which describes Bletchley Park (and 127 other great places to visit), the Engima and Lorenz codes and Alan Turing's life and work.

And you are helping save this unique site.


Friday, May 29, 2009 launches

The Geek Atlas is not just a book, it's also a web site. Over on The Geek Atlas web site you'll find information that complements the book such as photos, videos and trip reports.

And it's intended to be a community effort. Have you been to one of the places in the book? How about uploading your pictures or video? Or write a trip report.

Did I miss a place that really should have been in the book? Jump into the forums and post about it. If I get enough ideas perhaps there'll be a second edition :-)

Has something changed about a place (such as opening hours, cost, etc.). Come tell me (and the community about it).

It's as much your web site as it is mine. Drop by


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Background information for reviewers of The Geek Atlas

If you are planning a review of The Geek Atlas the following resources may be useful to you:

  1. The press release and the publisher's Press Room.

  2. A short video introduction to the book that describes one of the places.

  3. The book's home page.

  4. Blog postings I've written to help introduce the book:

    1. Resources I used while writing The Geek Atlas

    2. Why I wrote The Geek Atlas

    3. The Geek Atlas is for non-geeks too

    4. Children and The Geek Atlas

    5. Some of the science inside The Geek Atlas

    6. Five places you've never heard of from The Geek Atlas

    7. Taking a look at familiar landmarks with The Geek Atlas
    8. .

  5. How to contact me.

  6. The Geek Atlas web site.

  7. An excerpt from the book.

  8. The table of contents.

  9. The book has a Twitter account: @geekatlas.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Five places you've never heard of featured in The Geek Atlas

The Geek Atlas includes some of the big, famous science attractions around the world, but it's also about places that you haven't heard of, and shouldn't miss.

Have you ever visited these?

1. Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 near Arco, Idaho.

It's the first ever breeder reactor and in its parking lot there are two nuclear aircraft engines (that, happily, never got off the ground). And it's free. If you are a nuclear tourist then this is the place to go: it's got the first lightbulbs lit with nuclear power.

2. The International Latitude Observatory in Gaithersburg, Maryland

If you're an astronomer making accurate observations of the stars from an Earthly observatory then knowing how the Earth rotates is essential. This observatory was one of a chain that accurately followed Earth's rotation and all its weird and wonderful wobbles.

3. The Fermat Museum in Beaumont-de-Lomange, France

Pierre de Fermat is known for his Last Theorem which was only proved hundreds of years after his death. He lived in this market town in France which is full of delicious local produce and a museum of his life and mathematics with lots of mathematical games for people of all ages.

4. The nuclear bunker at The Greenbrier in West Virginia

If the US were involved in a nuclear war there needed to be a place for the entire US Congress to keep working. That place was underneath one of the most luxurious resorts in the US. The secret's now out and the bunker is decommissioned and open to the public.

5. The Mendel Museum of Genetics in Brno, Czech Republic

Gregor Mendel was the monk who figured out the fundamental laws of inheritance of traits by children from their parents by observing generation after generation of pea plants. Years before genes were understood, Mendel had made observation and deductions that identified how traits are paired with recessive and dominate versions.

You won't find the places in The Geek Atlas just by asking at a tourist office. It's abut the places that matter in science and then tourism has forgotten.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Geek Atlas video series

Craig Smith over at O'Reilly GMT recorded a set of videos of me talking about The Geek Atlas inside the Royal Institution's museum. He'll be releasing those videos via YouTube in the coming days.

The first such video is now online. Here I am talking about Chapter 096 (Experimental Breeder Reactor 1):


Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Geek Atlas is now available as an ebook

If you can't wait any longer for The Geek Atlas it's now available as an ebook for iPhone, PDF, Kindle and Sony Reader.

It's also available to anyone with a Safari subscription:


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Taking a fresh look at familiar landmarks with The Geek Atlas

Three of the places in The Geek Atlas are probably familiar to many people: the Atomium in Brussels, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO.

So you might ask yourself why I included them. The answer is that all three have real scientific interest.

The shiny Atomium is actually in the shape of an iron crystal. More interestingly it's the shape of just one of the allotropes of iron (the different structures that iron can form). Allotropes are very important because they show how a simple element like carbon can form graphite, diamonds and other more exotic structures.

The Eiffel Tower's shape was determined by Gustav Eiffel by calculating the effect of the Parisian wind on such a tall structure (at the time it was the tallest building in the world). And Eiffel managed to make it tall and fragile looking by calculating which pieces of iron he could remove.

The Gateway Arch is an example of a catenary arch. A catenary is a natural shaped formed just by the force of gravity. If you hold a piece of string with its ends in each hand and then hold your hands level the string falls to form a graceful catenary curve.

Details of these three places, the science behind them, and one more surprise about The Eiffel Tower (for which you'll probably want a pair of binoculars) are in the book.


Some of the science inside The Geek Atlas

The Geek Atlas is not just about travel, it's also about the science behind the places that are worth visiting. Every place has an accompanying sidebar of one to three pages covering a relevant scientific, mathematical or technological topic.

The sidebars vary in complexity from the simple to the really complex. Every reader should find something to please them in the scientific sidebars and no one should feel ashamed if they decide to skip a piece of science that's too complex. Even if you never read a single sidebar you'll still enjoy The Geek Atlas because every place has a description that's ready to be digested by any reader.

But do delve into the sidebars where you can find out about things like:

1. How the Big Bang was accidentally verified using a large horn shaped antenna in New Jersey, and why the Big Bang is still sending out microwave radiation.

2. Archimedes' Principle and how it applies to the everyday problem of moving boats between canals of different heights.

3. How Charles Babbage's Difference Engine works and the mathematics behind it.

4. Alan Turing's proof that no computer can predict whether a computer program will work or not.

5. Why the cable on a suspension bridge forms the shape of a parabola.

6. How the human genome, and other genomes, are sequenced.

7. The chemical reactions that happen inside a coke blast furnace to produce high quality iron (which helped get the Industrial Revolution moving).

8. How the gasoline and diesel engines work and how they differ.

9. How the transistor is used to build up the basic bits of logic needed to make a computer.

10. What the human body's lymphatic system does and how it works.

And that's just 10 of 128 pieces of science that sit along side the 128 places worth visiting in the book.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Children and The Geek Atlas

An obvious question for parents who are thinking of getting The Geek Atlas is "are any of these places suitable for children?". That question is answered in the book with a little icon next to places that I think are suitable for kids.

For example, some of the great museums are really good for kids. No child should be denied a visit to London's Natural History Museum (place 061 in the book), and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC is also wonderful (it's place 092). And everyone aged 9 or 99 needs to visit the Kennedy Space Center (place 094).

But some of the lesser known places are also really good for kids. The Falkirk Wheel in Scotland (place 072) is scientifically interesting (there are exposed cogs and a chance to talk about Archimedes' Principle) and you get a boat ride thrown in.

The Sagan Planet Walk (place 114) in Ithaca, NY takes kids on a scale tour of the solar system walking through the town learning about the planets and ends up at the Sciencenter museum which is especially good for kids.

In The Hague, Netherlands there's a museum dedicated to M C Escher which is fun for older children (that's place 029) with optical illusions everywhere.

To find out more you'll need to buy the book.


The Geek Atlas is for non-geeks too

On the back cover of The Geek Atlas there's quote that says: "A great read for geeks and non-geeks alike!" And it's true.

While writing the book I naturally had people like me in mind, but I also had people like my SO who is the anti-geek. She's not interested in how bits of technology work, and scientific topics bore her.

Yet I've dragged her along to a few places in the book. Anyone in a geek/non-geek couple, or parent with a geek child needs to know that they are not going to be bored by either the book or the places in it.

Rest assured. There's plenty to do for the non-geek at geeky sites, and the non-geek might just have a little bit of science rub off on them.

Take place number 051 in the book: Jodrell Bank. The geeks will go to see the Lovell Telescope, but the non-geeks can enjoy it too. Jodrell Bank is set in a bucolic location with a wonderful arboretum to enjoy. And a scale model of the solar system set into the landscape makes an ideal excuse for a walk in the countryside.

Or take a non-geek to place number 071. It's a pub. Geeks will enjoy it because it's the pub in which Crick and Watson announced that they had unraveled the structure of DNA.

If the geeky half of a couple is spending time in London's Science Museum or Natural History Museum (places 077 and 061) then the non-geek might like to spend time in the nearby Victoria and Albert Museum.

And the Eiffel Tower (place number 018) is a great spot for geeks and non-geeks. It's a landmark, looks beautiful and has lots of science to look at and read about.

Non-geek US visitors aren't forgotten. The Computer History Museum (place number 086) is right next to the San Francisco Bay and the Shoreline Park.

The bunker at The Greenbrier (place number 126) is inside a very classy hotel with a wonderful on site spa and extensive recreation facilities. Geeks can even treat the non-geek to a great meal on the restaurant, or make a weekend of it.

And what could be more romantic than a trip to Fairbanks, AK to see the Aurora Borealis?

And then there's the book itself. Each place in the book has a chapter consisting of two parts: a general introduction and a scientific topic related to the place. Non-geeks can skip the science and concentrate on the place and its history. Even my SO was fascinated by the story of Edison and Tesla battling over electricity.


Why I wrote The Geek Atlas

The second most common question about The Geek Atlas (after people have asked me to recommend the one best place to visit) is "Why did you write this book?"

I was working temporarily in Munich and at a loose end one weekend I wandered into the tourist office and asked about things I could see. Munich is a large cultural and industrial city and there's loads of stuff to do and see, but the thing that stood out amongst the tours, churches, beer and gastronomic delights was the Deutsches Museum.

The Deutsches Museum is Germany's science and technology museum and it is, at least in my opinion, the best science museum in the world. It's certainly the largest when you include its two annexes in Munich.

After I'd spent hours and hours wandering the museum's halls and admiring its collection of seemingly everything (including the wonderful jet aircraft that's been sliced Damien Hirst style to reveal its interior) I returned to my hotel.

Sitting in the hotel I realized that I had never heard of this museum. How had I missed out on just the sort of place that excites me? I figured there must be a guide book written by somebody that covers exciting places for people interested in science, mathematics and technology and so I hopped on

I couldn't find a thing.

I surfed around other book sites, and came up with nothing at all. I even visited the sites of specialized travel book companies. Still nothing.

So, I sat down with a fresh emacs buffer and started to type up a list of places that I had visited around the world that I thought would excite other people like me. After an hour of work I had a list of about 70 places.

It was a wonderful hour recalling an afternoon spent in the National Cryptographic Museum, childhood visits to the Science Museum in London, wandering the Arago medallions in Paris, clambering around inside the Computer History Museum when it was just a couple of sheds on Moffett Field, being assaulted by light, noise and technology in Akihabara, keeping a curator way past her lunch time at the Fermat Museum in France, and standing on the wind-swept cliff tops in Poldhu where Marconi transmitted across the Atlantic for the first time.

A little later I had a proposed title: 128 Geeky Places To See Before You Die (if you are a computer geek the number 128 will instantly stand out to you like a secret sign, if you are not you'll have to buy the book to find out why). And I had an idea: write a book where each place is split into two parts.

The first part of each place would be a historical and general description readable by anyone, the second part would be a detailed explanation of the actual science, technology or mathematics behind the place. The general reader could slip the second parts and still enjoy the book.

One year later the book is almost in shops. The reality is that I wrote a book for myself, I wrote the guidebook that I couldn't find. I hope you find it useful (all those places can be visited), informative (I've tried to explain the science in two pages without dumbing it down) and inspiring (even if you don't travel you can dream).


Monday, May 11, 2009

Resources I used while writing The Geek Atlas

With my book The Geek Atlas about to hit stores I thought I'd blog about some of the resources I used while writing it. With the list of places in hand I had to research both the history of the site and the science behind it. To do that I used many different sources.

Wikipedia and Britannica

My first port of call for information was Wikipedia because it has a very wide range of information, but I was very skeptical about its accuracy and so I bought myself a subscription to Britannica so that I could double check information.

If I read that Boltzmann died in 1906 on Wikipedia I'd jump over to Britannica to check the date. After a few months of doing this I realized that I was never finding inaccurate information on Wikipedia and that my visits to Britannica were a useless time sink.

But worse I noticed a significant difference between Wikipedia and Britannica: Wikipedia was a great starting point for my research, Britannica was a dead end. Because Wikipedia insists that citations are needed for its content, it's possible to start at Wikipedia and quickly find yourself reading original papers that match the Wikipedia article. Or in the worst case you've got a reference to go research in a journal.

For example, in the page on the Miller-Urey experiment to determine how life could have developed on the early Earth, Wikipedia links directly to Miller's 1953 paper describing the results. (I was even able to make a small contribution by correcting a small error after reading the original paper.)

In contrast, Britannica wasn't generous with links off the site. Yes, they do have some references, but their general attitude seems to be "we're Britannica, part of our brand is the assurance that this stuff is accurate". Wikipedia's attitude is "anyone could be making this stuff up, we'd better link to authoritative references". That makes Wikipedia much more useful.

In the end, I canceled my Britannica subscription. Wikipedia proved to be a great index for finding the information I needed.

The Nobel Prize archive

Many of the people I wrote about in the book won Nobel Prizes and the Nobel Foundation has made available the complete texts of the Nobel laureates' speeches freely on their web site.

While researching the work of Cockcroft and Walton, I was able to read Walton's Nobel Prize lecture complete with his diagrams and pictures.

There were many other times I referred to the original lectures given by the Nobel laureates.

The New York Times archive

Although The New York Times is not a primary reference it does contain a large amount of historical material. It's been published since 1851 and its complete archive has been digitized, made searchable, and available for a small fee. I spent $$$ on the New York Times reading news reports of historical events.

For example, the New York Times archive covers the battle between Tesla and Edison over the transmission of electrical current, and has many articles about Nikola Tesla including an account of his funeral.


To get to the bottom of some topics in physics there's the amazing HyperPhysics web site from Georgia State University. The site contains tons of information about physics topics and they were kind enough to let me use some of their diagrams in the book.

If you are interested in understanding bremsstrahlung radiation and its role in producing X-rays then HyperPhysics is a great starting point.

Thank you for this great site made by Rod Nave.


NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other NASA locations have great web sites detailing the science behind rocket propulsion, flight and other technologies.

For example, NASA's Glenn Research Center has an entire microsite dedicated to explaining rocket physics. The JPL has a good site for understanding Astronomy.

In general, many other US government departments were very helpful. Folks at the US Geological Survey helped out my understanding of the shape of raindrops.

US National Register of Historic Places

The National Register of Historic Places in the US is very helpful because it not only lists places that are of scientific interest, it provides access to the digitized forms filled in when adding a place to the register.

These forms contain a written record of why the site is historic and are utterly fascinating. While researching the Horn Antenna where the Big Bang was confirmed I was able to read the application for entry on the register which contains historical information about its significance.


Many professors around the world received random emails from me asking for assistance in understanding certain scientific topics. All but one of them responded to me (usually within 24 hours) and all of them were very, very helpful.

One of the big problems researching a book like The Geek Atlas is access to scientific papers. Because I wanted to read the original papers for things I was writing about, I needed access to journals. As an individual these are prohibitively expensive: Nature wants $32 to read 700 words written in 1932 about the discovery of the neutron.

Many of these professors freely emailed me PDFs of their papers so that I could read them for free. I am grateful to all of them for assisting me.

To highlight just two people: a big thanks to Patrick Weidman at the University of Colorado at Boulder for helping me understand how the Eiffel Tower's shape is a result of the Parisian wind and David Gordon from the University of Washington for assistance with shotgun DNA sequencing.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Geek Atlas World Map

Here's a map of all the places in The Geek Atlas:

Once the book becomes available I'll make this navigable.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

"The Geek Atlas" gets a cover

And here it is:

Can you name all the people and objects on it? A free copy of the book to the first person who correctly identifies them all and posts them as a comment here.

Bonus points if you can figure out which place is associated with each person or object.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

"The Geek Atlas" gets a proper home page

O'Reilly has put up the permanent home page of my book "The Geek Atlas" here. It has more details of the book:

With this unique traveler's guide, you'll learn about 128 destinations around the world where discoveries in science, mathematics, or technology occurred or is happening now. Travel to Munich to see the world's largest science museum, watch Foucault's pendulum swinging in Paris, ponder a descendant of Newton's apple tree at Trinity College, Cambridge, and more. Each site in The Geek Atlas focuses on discoveries or inventions, and includes information about the people and the science behind them.

(Click through for even more information).

I've also created a Flickr group Geek Atlas which people who've visited sites in the book can add their photographs. The following sites have been publicly revealed at this point:

  1. Experimental Breeder Reactor 1

  2. Bletchley Park in the UK, where the Enigma code was broken

  3. The Horn Antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey, where the Big Bang theory was accidentally confirmed

  4. The Trinity Test site in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was exploded

  5. The Alan Turing Memorial in Manchester, England

  6. The National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland

  7. The Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California

121 more great places to visit in the book.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

"The Geek Atlas" mailing list

A number of people have mentioned to me that they've preordered by book The Geek Atlas from Amazon. If you are interested in the book, but don't want to go for a preorder then I'm setting up a mailing list so that you can hear from me with further details as they become available.

To get on the mailing list send mail to

and I will mail you with news about its availability.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Writing my own bio

I came across the entry for my forthcoming book The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive and it contains an ugly bio for me. I asked the publisher to change it to which they said... please write a new bio for yourself.

Ugh. It's hard enough writing a book without coming up with something about yourself. Finally, I submitted:

John Graham-Cumming is a wandering computer programmer who has lived in the UK, California, New York and France. Along the way he's worked for a succession of technology start-ups, created the award-winning open source POPFile email program and written articles for publications such as The Guardian newspaper, Dr Dobbs, and Linux Magazine. His previous effort writing a book was the obscure and self-published computer manual 'GNU Make Unleashed' which saturated its target market of 100 readers in a matter of just months.

He has a doctorate in computer security but has forgotten everything he wrote in his thesis and is now deeply suspicious of people who insist on being called Dr., but he doesn't mind if you refer to him as a geek. He is the proud owner of a three-letter domain name where he hosts his web site:

Given that I now realize that people get to write their own bios on the back of books it really makes me wonder about some of the pieces of outright puffery that authors come up with.

One author I know describes himself as a 'world-renowned researcher' on a topic that he appears to know almost nothing about.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Testing book titles using Google AdWords

My 'travel book for nerds' book, The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive, will be published in April 2009 by O'Reilly. As part of the process of writing the book I had to come up with a title. I had three titles that I liked: A Voyaging Mind, A Mind Forever Voyaging and A World of Discovery.

Ultimately, O'Reilly came up with the current title after doing their own market research, but before that I wanted to figure out which of the three titles would work best.

To do that I bought ads on Google AdWords that were relevant to the book (such as when people search for 'science museum') and set up three ads that would appear randomly. The ads all had the same text except for the main title which was one of the three possible book titles.

I let the campaign run for 30 days and then analyzed the results to see which one had the greatest clickthrough rate. There was a clear winner: A Voyaging Mind.

And for a long time A Voyaging Mind was going to be the book's title.

It seems to me that Google AdWords could readily be used for other such experiments: it's cheap, it's simple to target your experiment based on keywords so that you can choose the type of people exposed to the experiment and by setting up random display of a set of ads you can try out variations of an idea easily.

Obviously book titles are just one possibility. What other things could be tested using Google AdWords?

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Holiday ideas for the geek?

Summer is upon us (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) and I'm looking for holiday ideas. But not just any old holiday.

Where would you go do geek out on something mathematical, scientific, or technological? I'm not looking for the run of the mill (like the London Science Museum), something exceptional (like a trip to the site of the Trinity Test).

Have you been somewhere really nerdy? I'd like to know.

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