21 December 2008

Rockin' Snoopy

Hello -

I was on blog-hiatus for a while, down under. Now that I'm back I'd like to recommend a rock remix of the Snoopy jazz theme song that's actually good!

So, Happy Holidays, or Happy Solstice, or what have you! Now, where did I leave those Tim Tams and my Cadbury Cherry Ripe Double Dipped bars...?


14 December 2008

Your Face on a Tall Latte

Hello and Happy Holidays -

I thought you'd get a kick out of this: Scott Kirsner reported on OnLatte, a startup able to print imagery on drinks like lattes and beer. See Scott's blog post here. And, as usual, Joost Bonsen worked his product-naming magic.


24 November 2008

Fives: Ideas for Geek Gifts

1. A solar-powered, bug-like robot kit that follows the principles of "BEAM" robotics. Basically, it ain't programmed, and stores up energy to hop from place to place. Try Solarbotics, Ltd.

2. Remote-controlled mini helicopter for $25. Air Hogs Apache Havoc Helicopter (Target / Amazon)

3. Fiction by Douglas Coupland, Neal Stephenson, or if you can get your hands on a copy, "Zeraus"'s Daemon. (That last one should be back in print in a few months at normal paperback prices.)

4. The Tenori-On (US$1,200).

5. Something Arduino.

Bonus. A t-shirt that says "Initech" but not this t-shirt that says "meh."


23 November 2008

Fives: Art for bit-heads

1. Anna Hepler's "Spin" documenting the motion of several hand-made spheres. At the simplest level, it looks like life imitating computer graphics, instead of the other way around. I wish I could see "Homage to Uccello" in person again, in which she captures the fleeting beauty of large collections of moving points... like fireflies or fireworks.

2. I posted this several years ago, but I still get a kick out of it. It's (Niklas Roy's?) "Graphikdemo," a green wireframe teapot suspended inside a Commodore PC that is rotated by black motors in response to keypresses. Seriously, check this out. I didn't know this guy also did "InternationalDanceParty," a weird boombox-robot that gets the party started.

3. C'mon, you don't like glitch art? (Sorry, yes, I've linked to this in the past, too. But all these years later I still love it - not sure if it's because it reminds me of my TRS-80 Color Computer, or something deeper.)

4. Game Mod, about modifying 8-bit games, or something. Give it one minute until giving up.

5. neural.it: "media art, e-music, hacktivism."


22 November 2008

Four market downturns at various scales

Hello -

I produced a few plots tonight of various indices for the crash of 1929, 1987, the 2001 dotcom bubble, and the current crisis. I'm not drawing any conclusions, they're just data. I was particularly curious about the timescale of how long it took to recover from each crash.

By the way, am I the only person who has a frustrating time dragging images to the location where I want them within Blogger? They always load at the top of the post, regardless of where my cursor is.

Here we are, now. (In all cases you can click the photos to zoom in.)

And here is the dotcom bubble bursting. Although WikiPedia puts it at 2000 - and judging from the chart it's right - I recall it being in the first quarter of 2001. Well, I suppose the dotcom crash was 2000, followed by what felt like a rally, only to encounter the telecom bubble bursting in 2001. The NASDAQ never did reach those heights again, right? (The Dow is in red, NASDAQ in blue.) This is the value of a dollar invested Jan. 1, 2000:

I find the brief uptick regions interesting. I imagine for each that we were all hoping, "Hey, this is it, we're coming back to normal again."

1987 - Do you remember "Black Monday"? I was in 8th grade at the time, engaged in a school stock market simulation. It was a perfect educational opportunity for us, but also probably nightmarish for our parents. I also recall that winning teams had picked DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation).

When newspapers show you stock charts, they usually position the y-axis around the region of activity. It looks quite different with a zero-centered y-axis. (Actually, real traders look at this stuff on a log chart, which is better at expressing % changes.)

See? Here's October 1987 but with the y-axis on 0:

Here is what your dollar would be worth if you had invested in the Dow on Oct. 1, 1987. I find those undulations interesting and would like to look at various sectors to see which are leading or lagging indicators...

Let's follow that dollar for a couple of years. Looks like the right strategy was to hold on:

We hear pundits referring to the crash of 1929. What did it look like?

...and here is the Dow's struggle to return to that value:

Quick, G-Fav, say something positive!


21 November 2008

Fives: (Newborn Edition) Ideas for Some Things New Parents Actually Need (Beyond, say, food and diapers)

1. The blue 65 cm yoga bouncey-ball, which has been the never-fail crying-stopping-solution in our house for two kids now. Plus, its spherical matte-blue perfection has an eerie alien aura to it. It looks like someone imported our house into one of those computer 3-D drawing tools and put a Phong-shaded primitive in our living room. I call it "unit sphere." Note: filling it to the specified diameter is tricky.

2. Tiny Love Gymini play mat, which we enjoy with more enthusiasm than just "tiny love."

3. Touchpoints - Birth to Three, by Dr. Brazelton of Children's Hospital Boston. And a good family medical book, like the one the Mayo Clinic puts out, as well as the proper thermometers, etc.

4. Do some research on good pediatricians a few months ahead of time. Actually meet with them, and chat with parents.

5. Before coming home, consider stocking your freezer with reheatable meals. Or, see if a friend will ask friends to contribute. In our case (thanks BC!) the cooking favor was paired with a request to please stay no longer than 15 minutes while the family settles in.

Bonus. Check ahead of time for the new-mom (or dad) playgroups - these are the people you and your newborn will get to know over many years. In the Boston area, Isis Maternity is a good connecting-point for such things.


ps Re: 1 - Or Gouraud, whatever.

19 November 2008

Fives: Goosebumpy commercials

1. Apple, "Think Different"

2. Sony Bravia, "bouncing balls" (w/ Jose Gonzales's cover of The Knife's "Heartbeats")

3. Nike Golf - "Never" - Tiger Woods or Nike "Awake"

4. Again with the Nike - "Fate"

5. Not a commercial, but this is such stupefyingly good snare-drumming - especially the first two minutes - that I don't know why everyone doesn't rush out and become a drummer: Blast's "Battery Battle."


Fives: In-Geek Shibboleths

Simply use any of the following and the others will know you're one of them.

1. Epic fail

2. !!1!!one!

3. Offhand use of: {orthogonal, overclock, -endian, isotropic, "plugh" or "xyzzy", "It's a jump... to conclusions... mat.", /dev/null followed by laughter, pwned}

4. Significance associated with, or sense of "roundness" attributed to any of: {3.5 or 8, 4-40, 101 or 280, 555 or 741 or 3904, 632.8, 2600 (either), 4004, 65536}

5. Anything involving the non-existence of cake, e.g., "The cake is a lie." (*)

Bonus. Painting "Warren Robinett" on an actual Easter egg.

Feel free to add.


ps (Credit to Merlin Mann who does lists of fives.)

16 November 2008

An (overdue) art post

Hello -

Here are a few contemporary artists / photographers I thought you'd like. They were highlighted by Design is Kinky and I (heart) Photograph:

Fred Murman (see "Teasing my Puppy")

The exceedingly disturbing sculpture of Patricia Piccinini

Yes, that picture is done loading. Some awesome pixel-rich "Walm-Art" from Jonathan Lewis - ah, yes, retail giants as faceless-whatevers.


14 November 2008

DJIA since depression - two snapshots

Not drawing any conclusions here, just showing you some data. We keep hearing comparisons to the stock market crash of the Great Depression, but have you seen the charts?

This is a (linear, not log) plot of the DJIA since 1935:

And this is a zoomed-in portion from 1935 to 1950. Yes, 1950:


07 November 2008

Despite, well, the economy tanking and all, New England young high tech cos are alive and well

Hello -

This morning I went to an interesting breakfast discussion for tech entrepreneurs that was organized by tech columnist Scott Kirsner and graciously hosted by ZINK Imaging's CEO, Wendy Caswell, here in Bedford, Mass. The missions? (1) Share what we're doing, particularly in the consumer electronics space, and (2) keep chunking along towards Scott's vision of reaching out to students before they flee MIT for California's warm coasts and increasingly imaginary pots of VC gold.

For your keeping abreast of the latest-and-greatest tech stuff, take a look at:

ZINK's zero-ink full-color photo paper, as used in instant print cameras. I'll keep it at that, under the presumption that what we learned this morning should be off-the-record.

WiTricity's efforts to commercialize "wireless power transfer" methods for, say, keeping your gadgets charged. The key scientist won a Genius Grant for this MIT-based work. Read more, including real science papers, here.

Tenebraex Corp's optical products, such as nanotube-based optical coatings that prevent reflections. Their President, Peter Jones, also deserves special attention for using that Latin-esque character that combines "a" with "e." (I can hear my friend Jim Java asking why there's no octothorpe or interrobang. Go ahead, look those up.)

Tired of paper cluttering up your house? Pixily's Prasad Thammineni to the rescue!

Do you want to know when your favorite artists are touring near you while you still have a chance to see them? Check out tourfilter.

And my company, Actuality Medical, has been quickly and quietly doing a certain something that will soon be able to give doctors a big helping hand at treating prostate cancer.


ps Oh, and no, CNN's "holograms" were NOT HOLOGRAMS. Insight Media's Art Berman explains more in a brief piece in Display Daily.

03 November 2008

Info-graphic motion graphics

Hello -

Somewhere between 11pm and midnight, I sit quietly with the computer. Do I create? No, I consume. Here are a few neat info-graphic motion graphics for you to enjoy.

Royksopp, "Remind Me" (who did the graphics on this one?)

Squarepusher, "My Red Hot Car"

And, for good measure, the opening credits from Mad Men:



29 October 2008

Educational video regarding one type of gene sequencing

This YouTube video describes how Helicos BioSciences's (HLCS) gene sequencer works. (For some reason, this was the basis of a Wired article.) HLCS stock is currently not doing so well, though...


22 October 2008

portraits from dominoes, alphabets, seashells...

Hi -

We've been doing a lot of image processing at work lately, so I guess I have Fourier transforms on the mind. If you got a kick out of my weird halftone portraits a few posts below, here is some art by people who take that sort of portraiture very seriously:
Obligatory video of alphabet rap with creative motion graphics:


15 October 2008

History of Optical Print Display Hologram - Meeting (Boston area)


The New England Section of the Optical Society of America will host MIT Media Lab alumnus Steven Smith for his talk, "A history of the optical print display hologram" this Thursday, Oct. 16 in Waltham, MA.

See the full meeting announcement at the NES/OSA website. Remember to RSVP. It is too late to sign up for dinner, but if you're interested, contact the organizers to see if they can get you in anyway. This is a great way to meet local optical engineers.

-Gregg (an NES/OSA Councilor)

12 October 2008

So where are we financially, really...?

Wonder how various aspects of the economy are doing in comparison to booms and busts in the past?

This "slideshare" by a new Sequoia Capital partner (a veteran from Stanford's endowment) has a lot of people talking - it is a call to action for its portfolio companies to batten down the hatches, save money, etc. etc. However, it is a wide compilation of graphs and financial data that could put things into perspective for you: housing prices, mortgage-types, the use of derivatives, etc.

Get full-screen mode with the icon in the lower right.


07 October 2008

Virtual schadenfreude

Hi -

Sure, this is just a video of an algorithm "learning" how to optimize a stick-figure's motions in a physics simulation so as to jump as high as possible.

But I have to admit I caught myself enjoying watching the little dude fall, even if he's just the result of a genetic algorithm.

The soundtrack is what really does it:

By the way, one physics simulation environment for GAs is "Breve." Here's a 2007 paper by Lassabe (et al) describing one way to use it.

Another video:


02 October 2008

CTRL-ALT-DEL of my debate-watching soul

I wonder if my uttering this tag-cloud will be suitably cathartic:

"nucular" maverick Ahmadinejad O'Biden doggone six-pack Main Street tax break six billion surge resurgence same-sex "nucular" "nucular"



ps Hmm, how about this video?

Ah! That helped.

29 September 2008

A better reason why this week is historic

This is a story buried under the headlines about the economy: on the fourth attempt - SpaceX's Falcon is now the first privately-built space vehicle to reach Earth orbit from a ground launch.

The employees go wild around 2:49 because that's the point at which things failed on the third attempt. SpaceX was founded by eBay founder Elon Musk.


26 September 2008

A defense-oriented braintrust you might not have heard of, and...

"JASON members all have security clearances, and they include physicists, biologists, chemists, oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer scientists. They are selected for their scientific brilliance, and, over the years, have included eleven Nobel Prize laureates and several dozen members of the United States National Academy of Sciences." (Wikipedia).

Here is a supposed list of members. If this is up your alley, see Ann Finkbeiner's The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite. It's at Barnes & Noble stores, and available through Amazon.

GOOD Magazine: Pay what you want.
Subscriptions to GOOD magazine are now "pay what you want," down to $1 that's donated to charity.

The Week magazine
Have you checked out this weekly compilation of news from the US and around the world? Highlights include: summaries of top news stories, impressions of what others think of the US, interesting real estate finds, explanations of key issues "from scratch," and snippets about good television programming, food, and gadgets. If I only subscribed to one news publication, this would be it.


19 September 2008

It's a Boy!

Hi there -

We joyfully welcomed our new baby boy - Gabriel Mark Favalora - this Thursday in the wee hours of the morning. Little "Gabe" is doing well and is blessing us with quite a bit of cozy sleep-time while mom and dad recharge our rest-batteries. We are particularly thankful that Gabe is happy and healthy, and that we have family members having fun with Toby back at Chez Favingham.

His middle name is in honor of my brother, Mark, who passed away when I was younger.

At long last, Toby got to meet Gabe - he's been talking about him for months. Ultimately, we used the name we chose rather than Toby's, because Toby wanted to name him "hot dog." Although I think that would have been cool, too.

Toby sizes up his little brother.

(You know, just in case you missed my announcement on any other remaining electronic media...)

So, blogging will be light for the time being as we settle in.


16 September 2008

Taleb's "Limits of Statistics" & the Financial Crashes

See Edge for "The Fourth Quadrant: A Map of the Limits of Statistics" by Black Swan author Nassim Taleb, whose work Anthony suggested a few posts below. With plenty o' charts and graphs.

"...Are we using models of uncertainty to produce certainties?

This masquerade does not seem to come from statisticians—but from the commoditized, "me-too" users of the products. Professional statisticians can be remarkably introspective and self-critical. Recently, the American Statistical Association had a special panel session on the "black swan" concept at the annual Joint Statistical Meeting in Denver last August. They insistently made a distinction between the "statisticians" (those who deal with the subject itself and design the tools and methods) and those in other fields who pick up statistical tools from textbooks without really understanding them. For them it is a problem with statistical education and half-baked expertise. Alas, this category of blind users includes regulators and risk managers, whom I accuse of creating more risk than they reduce.

So the good news is that we can identify where the danger zone is located, which I call "the fourth quadrant", and show it on a map with more or less clear boundaries. A map is a useful thing because you know where you are safe and where your knowledge is questionable. So I drew for the Edge readers a tableau showing the boundaries where statistics works well and where it is questionable or unreliable. Now once you identify where the danger zone is, where your knowledge is no longer valid, you can easily make some policy rules: how to conduct yourself in that fourth quadrant; what to avoid..."


14 September 2008

An insane amount of engineered light at NIN concert

Wired online has a writeup and 10+ minute video of Nine Inch Nail's latest tour - including a massive LED screen, some sort of foreground screen, and computers that supply real-time rendering for 40% of the performance. "NIN Dazzles With Lasers, LEDs and Stealth Screens."

[gloat] Tickets are available online; they're going through South America and back up again. Their Worcester date was moved to November. (I got two tickets!!!). [/gloat]


ps Blogger was smart (or stupid) enough to hide "gloat" when I put it in greater-than less-than signs.

11 September 2008

Math art: click, stand back, and squint

Hi -
I did a new round of portraits that play on simple themes of image processing. (Back in 2006 I did a few by hand, here.)

Here are a few fun experiments with various types of halftoning, in which you draw a bunch of little discs whose sizes are proportional to how dark those parts of the photo are. You can take it to extremes:

Graphics[{Table[Disk[{j,Dimensions[photoregion][[1]]-i}, dotsize[i,j]],{i,1,Dimensions[photoregion][[1]],1},{j,1,Dimensions[photoregion][[2]],20}]},Frame->True]

Graphics[{Table[Disk[{j,Dimensions[photoregion][[1]]-i}, dotsize[i,j]],{i,1,Dimensions[photoregion][[1]],3},{j,1,Dimensions[photoregion][[2]],1}]}, Background->LightBlue]

Hey, it's J-Fav as if drawn by an old thermal-paper fax machine.

10 September 2008

My iTunes galactic battle visualizer

Hi -

I figure I'm just as read-up as the next guy when it comes to recent Apple product releases, but I didn't realize until tonight that the visualizer has been upgraded in a really cool way. It reminds me of an OpenGL visualization of several galactic orbs either trying to destroy (or mate with) a sad little dark planet.

Or both, if you're listening to Nine Inch Nails. In any case, click on this thing:

Now the only thing standing in the way of my ascension to nirvana is the ability to put images into Blogger posts where your cursor is instead of at the very top...


ps Does one "ascend" to nirvana?

08 September 2008

BEAM robots & Esquire video

Hello -

There are some intricate, hand-made, analog, simple "robots" that are classified in their (Tilden-esque) BEAM taxonomy at Simon Fraser's site. Neat stuff! I might've first read about these back in 1998, and still intend to try to make some. Gotta find my old Weller soldering iron...

Also - the Esquire magazine with E-Ink cover (and inside advertisement) is out. Already, YouTube videos are available:


01 September 2008

Wonderful historian's 17-minute history of the computer

George Dyson's brief discussion about the origins of modern computation - including some humorous snippets from the first computer engineers' and programmers' notebooks - is available for you to see as a recorded TED video. This is a great way to relax and learn some interesting stuff at the end of the holiday weekend.

The George Dyson video is here. Ever since I had the privilege of seeing him talk in Mountain View recently I've been hoping to find any videos online...

(The little "expand" icon in the upper right of the video screen will make the slides much easier to see.)


31 August 2008

Maybe more interesting than the Palin wikipedia-editing

Maybe you'll find this more interesting than the observation that "someone" edited Palin's Wikipedia entry the day before McCain announced her VP-ness: a brief piece on Slashdot cites a Washington Post article regarding Cyveillance, the software company that noticed the last-minute edits in the first place.

Am probably a few days behind on this one, but still.


30 August 2008

Note to self: crazy 20+ year "intellectual syllabus"

Hello, future self:

Various experts in life-planning suggest that you're much more likely to meet your goals if you write them down. Why does this matter? Who knows. You'd think that having them rattling around in your head would be enough.

Really, I think the important step is coming up with a schedule: prioritizing. After all, we have what, about two hours each night that could be devoted to things like this?

I've thought about what my short-term "personal syllabus" could be, and for the last few months we've had more important family-oriented things to focus on instead. But I imagine that when I turn 40 or 50, I might look back at my young 30s, and wished I had focused on some sort of developmental plan.

Here's what I'm thinking as a purely intellectual list of knowledge-goals. Not interpersonal, not health-related, not financial. Just stuff I'd like to know well.

Fundamental "Thought Patterns"
I'm convinced that math - such as modern algebra - dives the deepest into the most fundamentally bare thought-shapes. It makes you carve away all of the assumptions you didn't know you had. Maybe advanced math is hard because it is so simple. It's hard because it's so easy to jump thoughtlessly to the wrong conclusions...

Abstract Algebra: (Artin? Should start with Maxfield...)
Discrete Math: (Liu)

Essential Math - read or re-read:
The 2-vol Harvard "math for physicists" (Bamberg & Sternberg)
Differential equations (re-do Boyce & DiPrima)
Fourier analysis (Oppenheim or find a copy of Bracewell)
Review your vector calculus
Information Theory / Communication Theory
Maybe, complex variables (Churchill, Needham)

Engineering / Physics / CS
CM / QM (Skim French, then do Griffiths, Shankar)
Control theory
Optimization (Stengel?)
Circuit Design (and RF)
Optical system design (finish the central chapters of Hecht), i.e. lens design (Kingslake, Smith MOE)- and Fourier optics (Goodman)
OS X or XP app dev't
Web app dev't
Complexity / complex adaptive systems (Santa Fe...) / ALife: (Kauffman, Waldrop)

Humanities / the Arts (I hear my friends laughing)
Look @ list of suggested works in the Western Canon
Plenty of contemporary fiction
Stay current in industrial design (I.D.) and graphic design (PRINT)
Color theory
Various biographies
Keep reading up on contemporary art / conceptual art

Analysis (McWilliams)
Games (Berne)

Business / Marketing
Marketing texts, accounting, valuations
Disruptive technologies (Christensen)

Skills / Crafts / Games
Drumming (Morello)
Go (Yoshinori)
machine shop
electronic prototyping and low-volume fabrication (possibly something better than Fab)
photography (get a clue)

World and Business Current Affairs
WSJ / The Week / New Scientist, etc.
(already reading various scientific journals, attending conferences)

This is just a list for me. Now that I've blogged it, there's the aspect of making it public. Priorities? Yaaaak!


26 August 2008

nerd confession

Tonight I was popping popcorn and daydreaming about what changes I'd like to make to our kitchen and I caught myself referring to the pantry as our "L2 cache."


ps Maybe I get points for it actually being a pretty good analogy.

Technology Review magazine's new roster of top young innovators

Technology Review magazine announces the 2008 "TR-35" top young innovators under 35.


25 August 2008

Emily is Not Real

Building on the last few posts about innovation, cinema, and computer graphics -- when you watch this brief video, keep in mind that THIS IS NOT REAL. It is a demonstration of advances in computer graphics. (via BoingBoing)


We're deeply into the time when it's safe to question the validity of many forms of photographic evidence, huh?


23 August 2008

Brief reviews: a good story about AI and a pretty bad book about innovation. Plus: cinema technology!

Hi -

Cryptography, bitmaps, cash, and blood
I finished the high-tech fast-paced thriller Daemon, and I loved it as much as I had hoped. Sure, it's a quick summer read that lacks poetry or a deeper meaning, but if you are into computers, information technology, AI, big business, rapid prototyping, or video games, I guarantee you'll tear through this in a few days. (As long, of course, as you can ignore the aforementioned misuse of apostrophes. We'll let that go.)

Oddly, I have more to say about a book I liked less:

Regarding innovation
In my opinion, you can safely skip Scott Berkun's The Myths of Innovation, a thin O'Reilly hardcover that might have been more appropriately packaged as an invited lecture at a business school course. It is a light-hearted, well-intentioned brochure of a book with myth-chapters such as, "Your boss knows more about innovation than you" and "Innovation is always good." It relies on Google for a healthy percentage of its examples, e.g., tales of Japanese businessmen touring Google, wondering disappointedly where the room is in which ideas happen, and relies on the Internet for many of its URL and Wikipedia-laden citations.

It does have an appealing design, though. The typography cuts against the grain, and it worked for me. Also, Berkun had a cute bibliography, in which words-cited were listed in order of his use, not alphabetically. But it should be taken as a warning that the humorous colophon was nearly as valuable as the rest of the text. Okay, enough. Here's what the reviewers at Amazon say where it currently holds an inexplicable 4.5-star rating.

Okay, okay, I admit that this quotation is thought-provoking:

By idolizing those whom we honor
we do a disservice both to them and
to ourselves... we fail to recognize
that we could go and do likewise. (Charles V. Willie)

(Watch, now the blog-karma will get me; I'll meet Scott Berkun one day, and he'll be an awesome dude, and I'll be all, sorry, I was young and stupid, and we'll laugh, but it'll be a fake-out, and he'll sock me in the gut.)

If you are interested in successful methods of innovating, I strongly recommend Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas (James L. Adams), or if you're curious about the uptake of new products into the market, you could try The Innovator's Dilemma or Crossing the Chasm.

Preview: The History of Technology in the Cinema
If a subtitle ever was capable of making you shout, "amen!," New England tech journalist Scott Kirsner has written Inventing the Movies: Hollywood's Epic Battle Between Innovation and the Status Quo, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. He recently was interviewed on NPR by Ira Flatow - discussions ranging from stereo cinema to Hollywood's aversion to technological advances.

There are infamous incorrect predictions at Scott's site, such as:

"I wouldn't give a dime for all the possibilities of [motion pictures with sound]. The public will never accept it." -George Eastman

Hey, I grew up in West Orange, NJ, home of Edison's labs and a particularly neat early movie studio called the Black Maria. It was a black room on a circular wooden track so that assistants could rotate it to admit sunlight as the sun moved across the sky...

The summer-night delirium brings me to my next note, which is that there's a They Might Be Giants song about the Edison Museum that mentions the Black Maria, but that's a tale for another time.


21 August 2008

"The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences"

We're Lucky that Math Describes Reality, Right?
If you've heard Eugene Wigner's quotation that, "[t]he miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve," here is the article that contains it. (1960) Is this actually a transcribed speech?

What if Reality is Math?
I met astrophysicist Max Tegmark at SciFoo; turns out he had a past life in stereoscopy. Anyhow, although I haven't yet read it, you mathy-philosophers might enjoy his "The Mathematical Universe," regarding "an external physical reality completely independent of us humans." You can find it in various formats at arXiv.org.

Separation of Church and State (not)
CNN Online: "Obama, McCain talk issues at pastor's forum."


19 August 2008

And now for something completely different...

J-Fav and I are expecting a new addition to our family very soon, and naming discussions are still underway. I mean, it's clear that we'll be "the Fav four," but what about first names?

So that leads us to today's factoid:

The 677th most popular boy's name in the United States

(not "Xavier," which is 87th)
(okay, to be fair, Xzavier might actually be up around 617; the source's website is a little weird in that regard)

[Source: www.yeahbaby.com]


16 August 2008

Innovative cinema-friendly technologies

Hi -

Now's the time for SIGGRAPH, the premier computer graphics conference - one whose technological advances frequently end up powering the following season's animated films.

For example, although Pixar's movies are compelling for their stories, I'm sure you've been shocked by the amazing realism of all those pixels. If you're not in the field of computer graphics, maybe it would surprise you that it was far from obvious how to get a computer to depict things like fire or hair - or characters seemingly acting under their own volition. So what's on the forefront now?

Here are three examples. Most have brief movies associated with them, so we can stare at the compelling dynamic imagery:

These three advances are particularly applicable to photography:


14 August 2008

Digital TV issues: TiVo and RCN near Boston

Yikes - I came home from a bunch of business travel and am suddenly wondering how to handle the changeover to digital TV in our town of Arlington, MA.

So - I'm trawling the message boards to see (1) how to connect TiVo (Series2, v 9.3...) to the new system, and (2) why we only have 20 channels now.

If anyone recently worked through this, I sure would love the input. At the moment, I am under the impression that I need to locate the "IR blaster" that came with our TiVo, so that it can change the channels indirectly, and to call RCN to find out where our channels went.



11 August 2008

Like Space? (edit)

Also of note: we were treated to a screening of Chris Riley's Sundance-award-winning film "In the Shadow of the Moon," [IGNORE: which evidently is screening later this year in the US.] I highly recommend this very personal view of our voyages to the moon. Trailer (and DVD) at the website.


10 August 2008

Decompression and DAEMON

Back in New England!

I was surprised to hear from so many of you about "SciFoo 2008" [some Flickr photos] this weekend @ the Googleplex. It was a lot of fun to attend, and really very open and friendly - for three days, folks were quite receptive to your plopping down your lunch tray and saying, "Hi! What brings you here?" Their answer could range from "fungi will save the planet" to "I make quantum computers" to something so modest that you knew it was a cover-up for not one but five things they do better than anyone else in the world.

Really, a bunch of folks have blogged about the experience - so if you're curious about the feeling of the event, I recommend checking out the BackReaction blog, starting at August 11, 2008.

The kickoff? An assembly of the 200 of us in a bright-yellow Google conference room so that Tim O'Reilly could encourage us to introduce ourselves - in 3 words or less. For the first time in my life, hearing group introductions gave me goosebumps.

Several whiteboards were arranged up front so that we could claim one-hour sessions to organize discussions about whatever we'd like (e.g., "Towards holographic video"). This was quite a stampede!

My Yalie friends might know what I mean when I say that waiting on line for movies @ LC put me in the right frame of mind for this - my orange sticky is up there somewhere.

It really was like meeting not just your favorite music star, but, well, many "nerd idols" from one's childhood and career. Will spare you the name-dropping.

What's hot? The "tag cloud" would look like: connectome, mitochondrial DNA, space, rain forest, artificial intelligence, history of science, education, influencing your politician, elliptical curve cryptography, and, uh, did I mention mitochondrial DNA?

One significant group of announcements regarded Google's interest to host as much "open" scientific data as possible. That is, if you've sequenced some DNA or scouted the galaxy, they could give you a briefcase with a disk drive for you to load your stuff on to, which they then index. (Let that idea sink in for a moment...) I think Googler Chris DiBona is helping run the effort - GIVE US YOUR DATA!

Somehow I ended up playing percussion twice on Saturday evening, once in a folk-guitar circle (J-Fav laughs and cries at this thought) and also fooling with an actual TENORI-ON handheld sequencer that Chris generously passed around. VIDEO:

Like I said, the event is beginning to be covered by others, so I'll stop there.

Curious anonymous quotations from the quantum computation chat:

  • Regarding the morass around ascribing some underlying sense to the equations modeling quantum mechanics: "It's not my place to saddle these poor equations of motion with interpretation." (someone quoting Murray Gell-Mann)

  • "We're trying to attach words to things that don't begin as words. You're welcome to do so but it won't change your day job."

  • "The first use of the transistor wasn't a supercomputer - it was a hearing aid. What's the quantum hearing aid?"
Oh, I just wanted to second the motion that everything you heard about the quality and quantity of food at Google is true.

In addition, the coffee urns yielded some of the best coffee I've ever had. What was it? "Barefoot Roasters"? I can't recall.


ps Sci-fi book recommendation: Daemon by "Leinad Zeraus". I'm tearing through this fast-paced thriller that traipses through IT systems, video games, international business, and one scary background process. The only minor (very minor) ding is the author's misuse of apostrophes throughout the book, but heck, it's a really fun read. Sample chapters - the first quarter of the book - available here in PDF.

pps More of the Tenori-On (about $1,200):

04 August 2008

Science Foo Camp

Hi -

This weekend I have the opportunity to go to "Science Foo Camp," an informal meeting organized by O'Reilly, Nature, and Google situated at the Google campus. Colleagues describe it as an un-conference in which participants with widely varying backgrounds spontaneously sign up to give (60-minute?) and hopefully back-and-forth discussions about topics such as: my time in space(!), extending the human lifespan, biological engineering, etc.

Am thinking I'll give a survey about hologram-like display technologies, and the underlying components which enable them. Looking at this year's attendee list, I have to admit it's a little daunting. But that's the plan.

photo of 2007 conference board (Steve Jurvetson, flickr)


01 August 2008

A taste of quantum mechanics: single photons doing unexpected things

Or, as they say in my home state of New Jersey, "quannum."

From what I can gather, some of you are interested in my posting more sciency stuff.

Well, here is one of the most beautiful and mysterious aspects of nature, something that really messed with our collective minds back in the 1910s-20s. Something that I was about to try to explain in my own words, but fortunately found a five-minute video that does it much better than I could.

In short, scientists are really confounded by the ways that little "bits" of light act if you shoot them -- even one at a time -- through two thin slits, and then let them whack the wall on the other side. Rather than just getting two clumps of photons, you get a wonderful rippled distribution of them. I guess you could imagine waves, such as water waves, making such a pattern. But photons? One at a time? What, are they colluding with each other as they decide where to fling themselves?

Physicists can now predict very accurately how light will act in a variety of circumstances. All this QM stuff has enabled a century's-worth of amazing new technology, such as, say, the laser, the transistor, you name it. But, frankly, the predictive equations have some pretty wacky philosophical underpinnings. There's still a lot of mystery to be worked out in those underpinnings.

There's self-conscious apology in how some of the equations were derived by the newly-minted Ph.D.s, in their 20s, about to gather up Nobel Prizes in the last century. I mean, it just doesn't make sense at the size-scale that we live in. French and Taylor put it like this in their QM textbook: "Finally, there is all the accumulated evidence that the Schrodinger equations work; they provide the basis for a correct analysis of molecular, atomic, and nuclear systems. Whatever questionable features there may be in the manner of their formulation are swept away in the evidence of their manifest success - a success of which we shall see many examples in this book."

Anyhow, here you are. Go learn yourself five minutes of science:

If this is up your alley, try this text, developed at MIT, which assumes you've had some physics & standard science-major math. Or, jump straight into this one, which was the Harvard QM text for a while.

Great, now I'm all sentimental for that lecture hall, which is at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab where I had an internship after high school...


ps And again, but with electrons:

24 July 2008

Cost of driving, per minute

Hi -

We're all fired up about $4/gal gas prices, and some of us may have an idea of how much this translates to in $/mile. But have you considered how much it's costing you per minute of car use?

Let's see. Assuming:

  • We're only talking about gas (not depreciation)
  • $/gal = $4.089/gal [1]
  • Fuel economy (name, city, hwy) = { {"Honda Accord 2002", 20, 28}, {"Toyota Prius 2008", 48, 45}, {"MINI Cooper automatic 2008", 26, 34}, {"Lamborghini Murcielago 2008", 8, 13}, {"Hummer H3 5 cyl automatic 2008", 14, 18} } [2]
  • What's "city", 35 miles/hour?
  • What's "highway", 55 miles/hour?

My 2002 Honda Accord costs me between 12 and 13 cents per minute while driving. [(4.089 * 35) / (20 * 60)]

The 2008 Toyota Prius, which is "The Most Efficient Overall" according to [2], is costing you a nickel per minute at city speeds and 8 cents/minute on the highway.

Meanwhile, the zippy MINI is around $0.10/minute, that guy with the freakish Hummer is spending around 20 cents per minute, and it looks like I need to keep my Lamborghini in the garage another summer because that would cost me about 30 cents/minute, which clearly I can't afford.

1. MSN Autos - Gas Prices near 02476 (July 24, 2008)
2. www.fueleconomy.gov


23 July 2008

What scientific discovery feels like (and music, at the end)

Hello -

If you enjoy science, engineering, or the history of science, you might check out Alan Lightman's The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs of 20th-Century Science. It's a paperback - got mine at Barnes & Noble. It's an unusual compendium of 22 discoveries chosen by Lightman, a professor at MIT, with the help of his colleagues. Unlike most watered-down science books for the popular audience, Lightman chooses to pair an intermediate-level discussion of each discovery with a reprint of the actual journal article (or two) that announced the finding.

As he explains, "There came a moment, in the spring of 2002, when I had finally gathered together the twenty-five papers that I would include in this book. I was home, in my house in Concord, and the golden forsythia were just starting to bloom. For six months I had been badgering astronomers, physicists, chemists, and biologists for nominations of the greatest discoveries in their fields in the twentieth century. The original publication of the theory of relativity. The first quantum model of the atom. The discovery of how nerves communicate with each other, the discovery of the first human hormone. [ ... ] I held the stack of twenty-five papers in my arms, a century of scientific thought. My eyes filled with tears."

I have mixed feelings about the book, but I do think it succeeded in expressing the joys of discovery. Of discovering things so far out on the edge of knowledge that they would change the course of how subsequent generations would consider topics as fundamental as light, time, and genetics. In my opinion, Lightman, with degrees from Princeton and CalTech, could in some places have done a slightly better job explaining the science. But that didn't detract from its theme of human achievement.

I've never known the feeling of discovery, of noticing or figuring out some primary element of nature. I've experienced the act of invention several times, though, a rare coming-together of elements in a new way, usually viewed through some funky angle. This book makes me want to experience invention again soon. The book makes me jealous, somehow, of these people with their careful star-measurements, their crystallography, their inverting those assumptions which are so basic as to have escaped everyone else of being assumptions in the first place.

It's also a "kick in the seat of the pants." Sure, 100 years of discovery are packed into an inch-thick book, as if Nobel Prizes are handed out like carnival favors, so I shouldn't be so hard on myself. But it's a reminder what people can achieve if they structure their efforts around a goal that they approach methodically and persistently.

So - here it is on Amazon.

Hey, what do you know, the book lets me segue into...

Another six hours in Portland, Maine
Sometimes I work best out of the office, so I threw my computers into two bags with a 2000-page instruction manual for Mathematica, and The Discoveries, which I read over my customary bangers n' colcannon lunch at Bull Feeney's. Several hours flashed by while working on some plots and graphs at Breaking New Grounds. Moved the car, went to a second cafe, and acted on Wubbahed's (and "Ted"'s, and Nathan's) suggestion that I try Duckfat. You gotta look at this menu.

Somehow it became 7 pm, so I popped into Bull Moose - every time I go to Portland, I pick out two CDs. Actual, physical, meatspace, representations-of-bits-in-plastic CDs. Radiohead's "OK Computer" [iTunes] and Squarepusher's "Hello Everything" [iTunes] I went into it genuinely wanting to enjoy both CDs, but let's say the effort's been a little more cerebral than I had hoped. Not to offend 90% of the music-listening universe, but this first experience with Radiohead sort of hits me as an excellent rhythm section with the rambly moanings of a lead singer who sounds like he had his lunch money stolen too many times. (I admit, I enjoy it a lot more after I read the lyrics. I couldn't tease out a single word without them.)

As for Squarepusher, wow!, that is one talented musician. It's an acid / jazz / electronica thing, over a frenetic drum and bass background.

"Drum and bass" you say? Yeah, electronic music in which this phrase plays at 2 zillion bpm. Here, you can hear the "Amen Break," the sample which it's derived from.

Aw, yeah. It's those third and fourth measures that gitcha'. (Click the picture if it isn't all showing.)

The rainy drive home had one of those infrequent moments of "radio synchronicity," you know, where you listen to one great song (AC/DC, "Back in Black"), and you change the station and it's another one (The Who, "Who Are You?"), and you enjoy that all the way through, and when you switch back, it's yet another (The Who, "Love Reign O'er Me"). I sound like the grumpy old-man Muppets when I say this, but most of the bands of today just don't have it like the older guys did.

Enough from me... but hey, I got some science in there, right?


ps (sigh) now I am thinking about music again.

Let's see. DJ QBert with some crazy vinyl drum "sample" action:

Some actual DRUMMING (Joe Morello):

Here's some DJ Shadow showing you another way how the sample-playback can be done.

15 July 2008

(v1.1) 15+ engineering and analysis "daemons"

I offer a collection of pointers when performing design or analysis - or, as my undergraduate advisor Peter Kindlmann might've called some of them, "daemons" or background processes. These are really basic, but they've served me well. [And... with a few more from the folks from the xkcd fora.]

1. Think something's wrong? You might actually be getting the correct results! Check your intuition or understanding of the phenomenon or the device itself.
2. Don't be fooled by the barber-pole illusion. The scrolls aren't moving upwards, the ocean waves aren't exactly moving at you quite the way you think, and... you get the point.
3. Strive for maximal component utilization across timescales - within reason.
4a. Parallelize, even if it's "embarassingly parallel." Especially when technology hasn't caught up with your idea.
4b. A related point: some initially mechanical solutions evolve towards solid state.
4c. An obvious corollary: better engineers use fewer components.
4d. The "nature-made theory": the great analog circuits are tangled, interconnected, non-modular systems.
4e. Consider a genetic algorithm.
5a. The olfactory factor: smell it.
5b. My grandfather taught me that you shouldn't touch electrical circuits, but if you can't stop yourself, use the back of your hand so that if it's high-voltage you'll involuntarily seize up away from the circuit (rather than grab it).
5c. Unrelated to design, but related to prototyping: don't look into the freaking laser light. And try waving around a business card to inspect time-varying phenomena.
6. We're prone to getting the hard stuff right, and the easy stuff wrong. So:
6a. Check the interfaces, or edges, between modules.
6b. Make sure the polarities are correct.
6c. Count the parentheses and remember the semicolons.
7. Have a complete plan before sitting down at the lab bench or keyboard. Trial-and-error mode is a symptom of poor planning and a lack of understanding of your tools.
8a. Do a literature search, but don't be constrained by it. If your invention is an invention, you won't find it in there.
8b. Can your quandry be helped by cold-calling an expert?
9a. Stuck? Pretend you're explaining it to your grandma.
9b. Stuck (but getting help)? Explain the goal, not the process.
9c. Stuck (getting an idea)? Mix three usually disconnected disciplines.
10. Envision what your hero would do in the situation.
12. Reframe the problem with broader words. E.g. not "four-wheeled vehicle with a seat and combustion engine," but "a means of conveyance."
13. Make a real effort to spend even more time with optimistic, inventive, supportive people - or, at least spent less with in-the-box naysayers. See also dynamic optimism.
14. Meditatively construct a mental mechanical model of it - and then play with it. (E.g., if a circuit, watch current pull springy resistors down from the voltage rails. If optics, don't be afraid to use your hands in the air as virtual lenses or rays. Code up a simulation and tweak it.)
15. Deal with simple but forgettable stuff with some peripheral vision Post-Its: like this, this, or even this.

Do any of you have more?

Updated from the xkcd hardware forum (thanks: Solt, wst, and Red Hal):

16. Document what you do. What seems obvious now probably won't to you or others in the future.
17. Remember to test the obvious and bizarre use-cases.
18. Hit "save" all the time - and promote big changes to a new file.
19. Don't be afraid to sleep on it, to give your subconscious a chance to solve it for you.


14 July 2008

Starbucks Vivanno: fail?

I interrupt the usual haughty erudition of this blog to bring you some night-before-the-actual-launch review action of a new Starbucks drink, the banana-chocolate and shot of espresso "Vivanno."

This baby packs 16 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber and... it tastes like it. It reminded me of a combination of light cocoa, some faint (but real!) banana, the airiness of a cosmic marshmallow, and a ground-up cardboard box.

Ah, well. The folks at the local Starbucks were really excited for me, so that I could leave my Monin banana syrup at home.

[Edit, Tuesday: Hmm. I just sampled it again at a different Starbucks and it was... good. Sampling error, maybe?]

Okay, back to the erudite haughtiness. If anyone has any questions about, I don't know, optics or medical imaging or something, ask away.


ps I think I get points for not using the phrase "epic fail."

12 July 2008

You aren't married until you've assembled Ikea

Hello -

Sorry to disappear on you, dear readers, for the last several weeks. Business took me to a bicycle-laden European country, a trip that was followed by some unusual work hours and three trips to see all of Toby's grandparents on various seashores.

We're baa-aack, just in time to continue assembling Ikea furniture flat-packs. Any guesses what LEKSVIK is?

Starbucks banana gossip: Buddies at the local Starbucks know me as "the guy who brings in his own banana syrup and then sits there and works." They excitedly tell me that a new drink with real, actual bananas will be available in just a few days. Read more here.

NYTimes: "In Novels for Girls, Fashion Trumps Romance:" And I thought I was behind for not knowing what Webkinz are. This article in today's Times is about several young-adult novels packed with product placement: "Indeed, you can often tell the bad guys by their unfortunate brand choices. The beautiful heroine of the “A-List” series, Anna, drives a Lexus (mentioned seven times in Chapter 1 of “American Beauty”) and wears a Molinari dress and Sigerson Morrison sandals. The poor thing gets in a car crash with some idiot middle-aged woman in a rusty Honda Civic, whose gray roots are showing and — here you may want to exercise parental discretion — who is wearing a bad Chanel knockoff scarf."

I'll restrain myself from making a wisecrack about the irony of the journalist's opening salvo: "A while back, Naomi Johnson, a communications professor at Longwood University in Virginia, sent me her doctoral thesis, which she described as a feminist analysis of the new wave of teenage romance novels. I don’t read lots of dissertations, and almost tossed this one when the words “ontological,” “objectivist” and “constructivist” appeared in the same sentence, on Page 38. " [here]

Anyway, what will Toby be subjected to, a few years from now? Heck, I don't even know what most kids read. Is Choose Your Own Adventure still in? Maybe it's Ender's Game.

Speaking of, ah, our ability to keep up with information, Danny Hills said it well (yet again) in his response to an article on whether or not Google is "making us stupid":

We evolved in a world where our survival depended on an intimate knowledge of our surroundings. This is still true, but our surroundings have grown. We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point. We know we are drowning, but we do what we can to stay afloat.

(the whole thing is at Edge.org)

From the "If You Don't Control Your Destiny, Someone Else Will" department: "Autopsy: Blood clots caused waiting room death," of a woman left waiting for 24 hours in a hospital ER. (CNN.com)

Back to something slightly techie. Seth Godin's 18 ideas on things that could be done with the Amazon Kindle.

For your iPod: I finally reloaded my iPod with some new tunes. If you like plinky thoughtful electronica, try out "Still Tired" from Herrmann & Kleine. Will put Ikea furniture together to 50 Cent's "In da Club" and Dr. Dre's rougher "One Eight Seven." Relive 1993 with Alice in Chains's "I Stay Away," whose alterna-anthem bridge at 2:12 still gets me. It's a good song to yell out loud. In your car, I mean, with the windows up.

If you want something more meditative and less angry, have you heard male-f0lk Iron & Wine, or really listened to Kris Delmhorst's choosing-my-own-way "Weathervane"?

Into trance? You know, like if you, say, exercise, which I don't, but hear is good for you? The iTunes podcast "Radio 538: Tiesto's club life podcast" is a frequently-updated 1-hour download of good stuff.

Happy Summer!


28 June 2008

Still a softie for science

As "positively parodied" by a recent xkcd strip, here's 60 seconds for science. Turn on your speakers...

(sigh) I certainly am a nerd. Oh, here is the xkcd strip:

Click here for the big one.

Have a good weekend,

23 June 2008

A few shorts

Hello -

Thanks for sharing your viewpoints on the previous post, which actually became a subject of Scott Kirsner's column in the Monday The Boston Globe.

So, dear readers, I've been busy, busy, busy. Interesting and complicated projects are afoot at work, including the end of six months of preparation for a six-hour "event" that I hope to be able to talk about soon.

Also, J-Fav and I have been preparing for the arrival of our second child in a few months. (Truth be told, Safiri and hubby have done most of the heavy lifting so far. This was a weekend of IKEA furniture assembly; and learning from our fine tongue-in-cheek academic friends that "the difference between commas and semicolons is that commas are for short pauses and semicolons are for long ones.")

Here, then, are a few shorts:

Winner, this week's subject line of earnest but inscrutable e-mail
"Subj: Final Reminder: Self-service Password Resets Over the Phone Webinar"

I thought it was a headline about an aggressive self-service password. "Resets" is a noun!

Serial Number Marketing
I agree with Seth Godin's stance that serial numbers should have some product-marketing consideration given to them; e.g., don't use O and (zero) in the same SN.

A Project: Cool Epoxy-Encapsulated Night Light
As if by tremendous cosmic coincidence, the last 40 hours I spent at work trying to encapsulate a 1" x 1" circuit board in a rectangular prism of clear epoxy has been met with a fun project in Make magazine: "Cosmic Night Light: Make a glittering LED constellation jammed in resin - with no soldering!"

By the way, I've been using this stuff from MG Chemical to pot our PCB. My results have been difficult to predict: sometimes it cures wonderfully, sometimes 5% on the bottom fails to cure. Anyone have experience with this?

Some Brainstorming Sessions Actually Use Mind Maps?
Check out this photo, which I think is from Steve Jurvetson's flickr thing.

Matt Brackett: Artist's Work Now at the DeCordova
Enjoyed the paintings of Matt Brackett. Check out his use of light in "Bedtime Story" and "Preparations at Dusk."


17 June 2008

Video - More female engineering undergrads

Hi -

Undergrad engineering courses are notoriously male-dominated. Folks have offered a number of theories for why this occurs, and there are several organizations that are trying to increase the participation of women in the engineering disciplines.

I am curious of what you female readers think of a new approach to sharing the excitement and "non-geekiness" of engineering by women. "The Nerd Girls" - a group of Tufts University engineering majors - has produced a video (and website, and Facebook / MySpace groups) to break the stereotypes. (See below)

From one Newsweek article, "...Which may be one reason that many of these tech-friendly women are working their pumps so hard. They're trying to break down stereotypes by being as proud of their sexuality as they are of their geekiness. "Just because I get dressed up Saturday night, that doesn't mean I won't do better [than a guy] on a test on Monday," says Nerd Girl Sanchez. Turning geek into chic isn't always easy. It took Google's Spertus, who is 39, years before she could proclaim herself girl and geek in the same breath. But it happened when she won the award for "Sexiest Geek Alive," a now annual pageant that began in 2000 as a spoof of People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive." Spertus beat out the men in her competition, and at her crowning, she paraded onstage in a corset made out of a circuit board and a high-slit skirt with a slide rule strapped to her leg. Still, some women worry that being too sexy could hurt them"

Have they found a good formula? I don't have a position on this approach other than an open mind - I'm just curious if you think that high school girls will click with this message. If so, great! If not, what's an alternative method?

-g, wondering what Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace would say

16 June 2008

Free TXT answers to short questions

Want free answers to Google-able questions texted to your cellphone?

On TiVoCast, The New York Times's David Pogue demonstrated ChaCha. Just call 1-800-2ChaCha on your cell phone & ask your question at the beep. A real, live, human guide will research it and text the answer to you in a few minutes.

I thought I'd try it out just for fun. It's free! (Except, of course, for whatever you're charged for receiving text messages.)


ps Question 1: "What's a good recipe for roast chicken?" (Asked at 9.28 pm. Answered 9.37pm.)

pps Question 2: "What's the wavelength for red of a helium neon laser, in nanometers?" (Asked at 9.30 pm. Answered 9:46pm: "632.8 nm...")

10 June 2008

Scientific Treasures on Auction Block at Christie's

...including a 1543 book by Copernicus. Calling it just a "book" is a vast understatement, but I'll leave it to the article to explain.

"Among Scientific Treasures, a Gem," by Dennis Overbye in The New York Times.


05 June 2008

Is it a game?

In ARGs, fiction pokes into reality - to advertise or entertain

C|Net reporter Daniel Terdiman recently received a package - with the tracking number scratched out - that contained, "a sticker with the words 'Scientific Anarchy Now' and 'Holomove;' a photocopy of a memorandum purportedly from Los Alamos National Lab dated January 30, 1985, regarding the termination of a scientist named Eugene Gough; and lastly, and most disconcertingly, a cut-open package of Emergen-C vitamin C powder." (article)

Sure, go ahead and Google "holomove," or visit their website purporting to have made a holographic video display whose images can physically interact with nearby objects. There's even a (mock) press conference, complete with a demonstration video showing an optical bench and several charmingly but very incorrect details that suggest no optical engineer ever provided input to the Californian PR firm that's believed to have concocted this whole thing. (No, we don't mount mirrors with alligator clips, and through-hole PC boards went out in the 90s.)

This kind of reminds me of Actuality's 3-D display experiments, but - as J-Fav points out - without the weird lab coats.

There are Wikis and web posts of people finding puzzles hidden within the site. There is even a "blog" from a company employee, over, what, a year?, with video posts and everything.

There's the fake VC firm affiliated with Holomove. A recruiting puzzle, too.

What's this teasing for? Who knows. But I think "augmented reality" games and advertisements have the potential to be a deceptively (or consentually) engaging way of getting attention from its observers and participants. Recall EA's "Majestic" video game that faxed and e-mailed its players. A recent Nine Inch Nails album was teased using data on USB sticks that were placed in various restrooms at concert sites. (You can learn more on Wikipedia, or at ARGNet.)

Food for thought, for marketing or for entertainment.

(tip to JohnFP)


ps Reminds me a bit of the 2003 MIT Mystery Hunt alternate-reality kickoff, though J-Fav will razz me for posting that...

24 May 2008

Why nearby things whoosh by quickly you when you drive, but distant ones don't

Hi -

Tonight J-Fav is out of the house, so I am left to my own devices here as T-Fav sleeps. In an idle moment I decided to submit an answer to New Scientist's weekly question in their "The Last Word" column. This week's question is:

Driving along in the car the other day, my four-year-old son asked why things that were closer to us were moving faster than those further away. What should I tell him? (Milton Inverdale, London, UK)

Here's my response, which is the real techie answer for the parent plus a little experiment for the 4 year-old:

We can answer this question and provide a simple manual "demonstration" that might appeal to Milton's 4 year-old. The complicated-sounding answer is that the type of optical system used by our eyes causes us to perceive a particular object as "smaller" the more distant it is; this is called foreshortening. Foreshortening causes nearby objects to appear to sweep past our vision much more rapidly than distant ones because it implicitly converts the angles subtended by the things you're looking at into distances on your retina. Therefore, nearby objects whoosh past your vision almost instantly because they have a high angular velocity with respect to the vertex of your pupil - but distant objects appear to creep along because they have a low angular velocity.

If our eyes were designed differently, with so-called "orthoscopic imaging," it would operate on the lengths of objects rather than their angles. That is, as you drove along in your car, everything would appear to move at the same rate. However, unless your eyes were very large, you wouldn't be able to see very far around the direction you're looking at!

You can demonstrate these things by placing your hand on a newspaper. Make a "V" with your index and middle finger and sweep it along the text. Your hand is the car, and the V is your field of view. You can see that the text near your fingernails takes a long time to move from one finger to the text, while the text closer to your hand transits more rapidly. In contrast, extend your index and ring fingers in parallel. When you sweep those along, every line of text takes the same amount of time to move from one finger to the other.


ps Fun diversion: check out NaturalMotion Euphoria, software for game developers that incorporates physics and AI to simulate really natural-looking motion of game characters. This is a big deal because it can replace "keyframing," a hard-coded approach. Anyway, take a look.