25 September 2007

CSI:maybe ... & MacArthur "Genius" Grants

Perspecta Display (may be) in CSI:NY Season 4
Hooray, set your TiVos to 10pm ET this Wednesday on CBS. Our Perspecta 3-D Display may appear in the season premiere of CSI:NY. Will Gary Sinise gaze into it to consider the remains of someone dead? Will it be a mystical crystal ball used by a fortune teller? Will its domed essence be left aside in favor of a car commercial?

I hope these questions and more will be answered Wednesday night.

[Update: Yeah! The Perspecta 3D Display appeared in CSI:NY, and it looks like it made it into the episode opening credits, too.]

From the Must... Try... Harder... Department
The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2007 "genius grant" recipients, $500,000 for completely unrestricted use that goes to artists, psychologists, historians, inventors, scientists... There is a summary CNN story as well as the Foundation's link with all awards. (Hey, it includes HowToons / Squid Labs' Saul Griffith.)

Past winners include Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Ornette Colman, Max Roach, John Hollander, Harold Bloom, Jim Blinn, Karl Sims, Stephen Wolfram, Stuart Kauffman, Lene Hau...

Get to work, people! :-)


23 September 2007

Passionate readers of the xkcd webcomic

This afternoon, somewhere between 400 and 600 people crowded into a postage stamp-sized playground in Cambridge to figure out what might be implied by this particular episode of the webcomic xkcd. Would wanting something make it real?

J-Fav, Toby, and I had fun amidst throngs of people wearing clever science-minded t-shirts, female engineering majors offering "raptor-free hugs," quite a few black fedoras, and many, many cameras. The GPS location in the comic pointed to a tall Buckyball-esque play structure that was covered by people by the time we arrived:

At one point, a mattress was passed to the top of the group. A live webcam and WiFi setup were taped to a nearby swingset, broadcasting the whole affair live. College reporters, a t-shirt station, even a guy dressed in chain mail was up a tree. Sure enough, as J-Fav predicted, the foam sword people arrived.

Here's a little Picasa slideshow.

Where is this post going? I don't know, and none of us really knew where the event was going, either. A few wore the shirt, "JUST SHY - not antisocial - (you can talk to me)," which was emblematic of the mood. Lots of shy techies smiling, hoping someone will engage them in conversation. J-Fav and I chatted with one guy, Joe, from WPI, who bemoaned the f/m ratio there (pi) and held a sign aloft in the hopes of getting a date. (See the aforementioned Picasa slideshow.)

Randall Munroe, the strip's artist/author, indeed appeared and announced to the crowd that yes, sometimes wanting something can make it real. He invited the masses to help finish the comic on a string of giant white panels & provided many a Sharpie to get the job done. A good time!

Already, hundreds of photos (see link a few posts in to general Flickr group) of the event are in a Flickr pool. Here's the thread so you can see more, which put mine to shame.

Alright, that's it. No more xkcd meetup news from me.

Unless, that is, if someone can explain to me why fedoras (espcially black fedoras) are nerd chic, even outside the realm of this comic.


20 September 2007

xkcd Meetup / Scientific American

Hello -

Just three things today.

xkcd Meetup this Sunday
If you are a reader of the romantic / nerdy / scientific webcomic xkcd, you probably know already that a gaggle of folks will be decending upon a tiny playground in Cambridge, MA at the location and time specified in one of the comics. If you "mouseover" a comic, additional text pops up. One of our office favorites is: about a cat. I have Tahnan to thank for pointing me to it, originally for a linguistics jab.

The discussion area with details about the meetup is here. (Look at the first post of the first "sticky" conversation.)

I think I'll be there. Is this weird?

I Broke My Rule

Arr! I broke my longstanding rule against buying magazines (since, usually, they are only a good way to throw away $5.) But I fell off the wagon today to buy a copy of Scientific American Reports: Special Edition on Nanotechnology. It looks pretty good! Keep an eagle eye out at those bookstores.

Frequency vs. Wavelength
This is an example of how not to assess kids' knowledge about science!


18 September 2007

The Timbre of our 30-something Subconscious

A post for Matthias and Brandon

If you were born in the 70s, these video clips might trigger some memories. I post them because I recall being fascinated with the sound editing of these PBS films back in 1st grade. In my opinion, sounds are just as able to "bring you back" to a time period as a color palette is (e.g., the way Polaroids make you think "this is seedy!" or Technicolor makes you think, "Hey, is this 1965?")

The Inside|Out series taught kids how to be introspective and considerate. I recall that each episode had a brief 2-second long high-pitched tone that would sound during psychodramatic freeze frames. Why on earth did I remember something I saw as a seven-year old?

If any of this resonates with you, check out the band Boards of Canada. Their songs are composed of so-called found sounds.

  • "Inside Out" Bully Part 1 (tell me you don't remember this!) The theme music is so deeply rooted in my brain that my spine practically gets goosebumps. The weird tone is around 4:00.
  • Ending credits for "Thinkabout"
  • The "Thinkabout" intro with the kid's glowing silhouette
  • A video history of several years of the PBS logo (was I the only person slightly freaked out by that P-Head thing?)
  • Opening credits of "Big Blue Marble"
  • Mark, Trini, and Lisa on "3-2-1 Contact"
  • Fine, here you go: "Great Space Coaster"
Ah, those synthesizers of our youth.


ps Here's a Boards of Canada video for you. It's all about the tone color.

If that floats your boat, try this and this.

17 September 2007

Reverse engineering nonlinear systems

(Note to self)

Bongard J., Lipson H. (2007), "Automated reverse engineering of nonlinear dynamical systems", Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, vol. 104, no. 24, pp. 9943-9948.


Complex nonlinear dynamics arise in many fields of science and
engineering, but uncovering the underlying differential equations
directly from observations poses a challenging task. The ability to
symbolically model complex networked systems is key to understanding
them, an open problem in many disciplines. Here we
introduce for the first time a method that can automatically
generate symbolic equations for a nonlinear coupled dynamical
system directly from time series data. This method is applicable to
any system that can be described using sets of ordinary nonlinear
differential equations, and assumes that the (possibly noisy) time
series of all variables are observable. Previous automated symbolic
modeling approaches of coupled physical systems produced linear
models or required a nonlinear model to be provided manually. The
advance presented here is made possible by allowing the method
to model each (possibly coupled) variable separately, intelligently
perturbing and destabilizing the system to extract its less observable
characteristics, and automatically simplifying the equations
during modeling. We demonstrate this method on four simulated
and two real systems spanning mechanics, ecology, and systems
biology. Unlike numerical models, symbolic models have explanatory
value, suggesting that automated ‘‘reverse engineering’’
approaches for model-free symbolic nonlinear system identification
may play an increasing role in our ability to understand
progressively more complex systems in the future.

(Another note to self)

Dear Future Gregg,

Young grasshopper, yo must resist the urge to buy songs like Rihanna's "Umbrella" and "Shut Up and Drive" from iTunes at 11pm. However, purchasing tunes like "Axel F" is just fine.

-Past Gregg

15 September 2007

The photography of "Everyday Italian" (now, with other stuff too)

Do you notice anything unusual or perhaps entrancing about the cooking show "Everyday Italian"? No, this isn't a note about Giada's [YouTube] ever-plunging neckline in what might pass in pruder regions as soft-core food porn. It's about the cinematography, or more accurately, the photography.

When I watch "Everyday Italian," I feel like I'm in a slightly disconnected and very pristine food universe. It's like looking over the shoulder of the production squad for the Ikea catalog. It's like eating sushi on a white plate while Philip Glass is piped into my cortex.

It's like having a conversation with the typeface Helvetica.

I've wondered why this is, and it is a little difficult to decode since I'm not trained in the vocabulary of film editing. This morning I spent some time considering it, and here's what I came up with: there are two factors at play. One is that the vocal narrative happens naturally, like a normal continuous time progression, but the editing is very discontinuous in time. I suppose this is normal for various how-to shows like "The Way Things Work," but I get a similar floating-in-outer-space feeling when I watch that, too. She's talking normally over images that skip forward through normally time-consuming processes.

The other factor is that there must be quite a few cameras rolling simultaneously, because the editing seems to anticipate exactly what Giada's about to do next. She reaches for a full head of garlic, and magically you see a closeup of perfectly-cut garlic in her hand. She moves toward a bowl of pasta, and the camera jumps several seconds ahead to a perfectly-framed image of two pieces of penne on her fork.

Sorry, folks, this stuff just really gets me. I don't know why. I'm wired funny.

Wondering if there's any truth to this, I poked around a bit online. It turns out that the show has won several Daytime Emmys for "Outstanding Achievement in Single Camera Editing" and "Single Camera Photography." I looked at the CV of one of the photographers, Richard Dallett, and he's been involved in quite a few award-winning documentaries. (Hey, he did a documentary on Elizabeth Bishop! Why hadn't I heard of that before?)

So I guess I'm not off my rocker...

A Collection of Things in the "Read Later" Folder

-g, who just realized I should have put "Bourne Shell" as the last comic below...

07 September 2007

the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks

Snarky grammarians, unite! A blog entirely about unnecessary quotation marks.



What is your dangerous idea? (II)

During this week's pilgrimage to Sand Hill Road, I relented and picked up editor John Brockman's What is Your Dangerous Idea?. About 100 top thinkers in the "Third Culture" Brockman posse provided compact answers, forming a collection of brief essays perfect for picking up and starting anywhere. Evidently, the idea of collecting 100 smart people in a room and having them "ask each other the questions they are asking themselves" began as an art project in 1971 - and was returned to recently. Every year sees a new question.

It looks like the entire book is available for free, piecemeal, at the Edge site.

Here are a few that stuck out. Note that the author doesn't necessarily agree with the idea; it's simply the author's candidate as a dangerous idea. Stephen Pinker's introduction explains, "By 'dangerous idea' I don't have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist, or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age... Writers who have raised ideas like these have been vilified, censored, fired, threatened, and in some cases physically assaulted."

Many of the contributions dealt with atheism or the rejection of the "soul" as something other than electro-chemical. I don't know if this mirrors the common state of mind in the academic world, or if it is biased sampling due to the group in which outspoken critics of religion like Dawkins and Dennett play a part. In any case, here are a few to start with:

(For J-Fav) Roger Schank: No More Teacher's Dirty Looks ("My dangerous idea is one that most people immediately reject without giving it serious thought: school is bad for kids — it makes them unhappy and as tests show — they don't learn much...")

Matin Rees: Science May Be Running Out of Control

Jeremy Bernstein: The Idea That We May Understand Plutonium (this one surprised me)

Denis Dutton: A "Grand Narrative" ("The humanities have gone through the rise of Theory in the 1960s, its firm hold on English and literature departments through the 1970s and 1980s, followed most recently by its much touted decline and death...")

David Gelernter: What Are People Well Informed About in the Information Age?

Steven Strogatz: The End of Insight ("In my own field of complex-systems theory, Stephen Wolfram has emphasized that there are simple computer programs known as cellular automata whose dynamics can be so inscrutable that there's no way to predict how they'll behave. The best you can do is simulate them on the computer, sit back, and watch how they unfold. Observation replaces thought. Mathematics becomes a spectator sport...")

Stewart Brand: Applied History ("...What if public policy makers have an obligation to engage historians, and historians have an obligation to try and help?")

And finally, something that I should have realized but didn't:

Michael Shermer: Where Goods Cross Frontiers, Armies Won't


03 September 2007

Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Invention

  • "The Most Read Full-Length eBook of All Time," Unleashing the Ideavirus, is available for free at Seth Godin's site
  • There's a Best-Of page at Guy Kawasaki's blog, How to Change the Word: A practical blog for impractical people. Posts include "The Top Ten Stupid Ways to Hinder Market Adoption," and good advice from an investor on creating VC pitches.
  • Combine the two and you get Guy interviewing Seth about The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (And When to Stick).
  • "Introducing the Google Phone" in The Boston Globe by Scott Kirsner.
  • Brockman's Edge posse discusses biotechnology, life, and engineering life. We're talking serious stuff here, like sequencing the genomes of a multitude of aquatic microbes, rethinking natural selection, and other stuff that makes you realize that bio-engineering is happening now.
  • Charlie Rose interviews Danny Hillis (2001, YouTube).
  • Freeman Dyson's essay, "Our Biotech Future" in The New York Review of Books. Here's one paragraph:

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.


02 September 2007

Favalora / Cunningham Family Website

Note to friends & family:
Jennifer Cunningham, Gregg Favalora, and Toby have an updated family website at www.greggandjenny.com. Please comment if you find errors or oddities (or otherwise!).

Note to do-it-yourself webnerds:
I made the site with Apple iWeb, an ostensibly good-natured site design tool that unfortunately prevented me from changing things as basic as, say, the color of hyperlinked text or the HTML-ized title of a page. You can't view or edit the underlying HTML. The details were as frightful as watching sausage getting made, but we finally went live after using iWeb, Cyberduck, and Textwrangler.

  • "How to Find Time For Yourself." [Lifehack]
  • McSweeney's lists: "Freudian Notes My Hasty Doctor Wrote in My Medical Chart" [here], and "Past and Future Magazine Titles That Map Our Intellectual Decline" [here].
  • Want to visit a peaceful trail in Lincoln, MA? How about a calm grassy area for quiet contemplation? (Yes, more geocaching this weekend.)
  • New CEO for Ambient Devices [from Innovation Economy]
  • Holographic Microtext (spatially multiplexing many pages of information in a single hologram) [discussion at Holography Forum]


01 September 2007


Sharing iPhoto Pictures Easily
Have a Mac, using iPhoto? Just install the Picasa Web Albums software plug-in for iPhoto. Assuming you have a gmail account, throw the photos you want to share into an album, then do "Export" to Picasa. Done! No more waiting around for Shutterfly or Snapfish or whatever.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation
After 10 years of taking vacation in only the rarest circumstances, I'm finally teaching myself how to take some time off with family. We took a week to visit friends from near-and-far: visited with Flavia, BC, and JS; saw EB at Old Orchard Beach; and after spinning through Schuylerville (er... Victory Mills), we headed to a cozy place in green, friendly, earthy Warren, VT which a friend had generously allowed us to bunk at.

I don't know how to condense our experiences into a pithy description. Our many hundreds of miles of driving this week led us to neighborhood cafes, up and down dangerous craggy unpaved mountain roads through cloud cover, and gazing at breathtaking views from tall hills and off riverbeds. We saw covered bridges, outdoor flatbread-eatery, (many!) bikers, the towns of Warren, Waitsfield, Montpelier, Stowe, and several in-between, and even the fellow who did our wedding photography -- who graciously introduced us to the founders of Diffraction, Ltd., a very accomplished couple who have invented many things in the field of holography and micro-optics: Bill Parker and Julie Walker. (Plasma touch-globes adorned their offices, as Bill invented it!) Hopefully you optics-folk will enjoy the company's name.

Geocaching Galore
Take it from a professed stick-in-the-mud: get yourself a little GPS, log in to www.geocaching.org, and have yourself some fun already. This week, we found (really, J-Fav found) these. The links go to Google maps; just click "hybrid" for the satellite view.

  • GC14N9R, "CJ and Arianna's Scenic Stop," at an extraordinary mountaintop view (a microcache hidden in an unlikely place)
  • GCRTX0, "Lost and Found," hidden at (under) one of a series of old, covered bridges
  • GCZJ4B, "Quick Cache 7," at a commuter stop off a highway somewhere, in full view of many curious onlookers what on earth a couple & toddler were doing near a drainage ditch smiling goofily.
Just click on the "Hide and Seek a Cache" in the menu on the left.

Alright, to the photos already.

Vermont 2007