29 April 2008

Robot self-reassembles after being kicked apart

This is from TR-100 award-winner Mark Lim's work at the GRASP lab @ U. Penn. (Found this on Valleywag, whose headline was, "Scientists create self-regenerating robot that's obviously going to kill us all.")


28 April 2008

A note about children's toys

Hi -

Doesn't the world need some more inventive, higher-quality, thoughtfully-created toys for 1-2 year-olds? I am satisfied with many children's books, and with time-tested things that result in long-term, "deep" play: dolls to dress up and feed, pretend kitchens, train sets, tricycles, blocks, gears... But outside of that collection, I think we're wanting. Sauntering into K-B Toys I couldn't help but think, "This place is all cheap plastic in different shapes."

Engineering-esque comment: some manufacturers, like VTech, embed electronics in toys to make them talk or help toddlers learn the alphabet or names of animals. But many of these toys use circuitry that omits the high-frequency components of sound. Or, that's not quite it, they're aliased. What I mean is that "bee" and "dee" sound alike, as do "eff" and "ess."

Here's a spectrograph. See how "s" is way up high? Click it.

(from here)

Is this harmful, developmentally? I suppose not, since kids are around talking people all day. But c'mon, would it really blow the bill-of-materials to spend another quarter on a better DAC and a touch more RAM? Believe me, this stuff can be had CHEAP.

On the other hand, there are pockets of innovation. We couldn't guess what one toy's function could possibly be (a gift to Toby last year.) Here's a photo: the Playskool Busy Basics Busy Ball Popper. This thing is amazing! The 1 year-olds and adults all want a turn. When you press the button, silly music begins to play, a fan turns on, and hollow plastic balls either shoot out of the toy or hover in the air. When the song ends, the balls fall back in (except for the ones you chase around the room) and it begins again. Anyhow, it's one example of a toy whose function isn't obvious from its form. In a good way.

Come to think of it, Playskool / Hasbro's products strike me like the result of significantly more play-testing than others. It is worth it.

A final thought: do any of you recommend toys that do a deceptively simple job of teaching basic scientific principles? For example, we got Toby the "optic wonder" at a boutique toy store in Saratoga Springs. It is a little green gadget with four lenses on hinges, a mirror, and a compass. Toby and I can look at the TV pixels close-up, project an image of the ceiling lamp onto the table, and swing out all the lenses to make binoculars. [Woah, discontinued!? Figures.]


Props to 07052

Okay, that was a bad play on words.

This is just a note to folks from my home town of West Orange, NJ that the local mall up here off the Route 128 corridor is the set for a movie produced by Adam Sandler starring Kevin James ("King of Queens"). Yes, while one wing of the local Burlington Mall is ascending into 1980s-style materialistic yuppiedom a-la Nordstom, the rest is set up with faux winter props several stories high. It's weird. The movie, "Mall Cop," is... well, that's all I know, actually.

Oh, 07052? The fake mall signage props refer to the place "West Orange Mall." Actually, it's neat to see the extent to which they make the temporary changes so realistic. (Except for the Nordstom, which is unfortunately real, as is the new Ruehl clothing store, with pulsing music, mirrored walls, and disaffected teen service staff.)

Hey, look, I'm from NJ, okay? Malls are, you know, like baseball games to Bostonians or (gosh, insert pseudo-intellectual finisher here...)... or... ah, like Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop. Or, ah that's enough. I have expended my one-trick-poet reference annual budget. (Note to my wonderful wife: hey, look, someone's heard of Yaddo other than you.)


22 April 2008

Business: Stopping the Western Migration

Tonight, as part of an ongoing mission to strengthen New England businesses, journalist Scott Kirsner assembled a group of entrepreneurs, students, venture capitalists, and folks from business schools and other organizations at a cozy Cambridge restaurant. Why? We picked each other's brains & explored:

  • How do we stop the "brain drain" of students and entrepreneurs from New England schools and businesses to the west coast?
  • What's causing this?
  • What programs are good at connecting students to start-ups, VCs, and internships?
  • ...and are there ideas for new ways to reach students?
  • Why are start-ups moving west? I mean, there's "early stage venture capital" here, right?
  • Did you notice that New England firms still rely on noncompete agreements, whereas they are out of favor in the Valley?
The 14 of us chatted about these issues for a couple of hours. Sure, the BHAG of duplicating MIT's many successes as a wellspring of entrepreneurship at other schools is a many-year project. But we honed in on a few themes. I'll keep people's names out of it:

  • A BC sophomore noted several things: (1) internships are a very powerful magnet for students, and (2) BC has a successful class that takes students on a tour of 10?-30? companies - from start-up to blue chip - in Silicon Valley, after each student spent the semester doing a deep-dive on each, so as not to waste the CEO's time with naive questions.
  • Folks from nearby business schools and their career services offices expressed a desire to provide their students with excellent job opportunities, but (1) didn't want to spam local companies, and (2) didn't know how to get assurance that a given job was of high quality. (We told them not to worry about (1). Companies appreciate being reminded by universities about the availability of a fresh labor pool! For instance, the University of Rochester's optics program pings me a few times a year. That's helpful.)
  • There's more to business than high-tech and biotech, but perhaps we should focus on our strengths.
  • Some commented on how palpable the excitement of entrepreneurship is in the Valley, as opposed to here. I'm not sure I agree -- I feel like the cafes along Mass Ave are the birthplace of many a business plan. But it's a common viewpoint.
  • I expressed the view that many Boston entrepreneurs complain that early stage venture capital really is hard to come by. The venture capitalist across the table from me pointed out several funds that are "early stage," e.g. Bain, Polaris, etc. I'm sure we could have argued that for many hours. At the end of the day, the VCs feel they are truly early-stage, and entrepreneurs feel otherwise. There is a gap between Y Combinator, angels, and Series A.
  • Lots of love for Y Combinator.
  • Smart companies are finding employees - and vice versa - on LinkedIn.
  • Some schools have network "nodes" - some folks at MIT come to mind - who know all of the entrepreneurs, the local success stories, and the professors pushing the envelope. How about if universities or corporations do a little guerrilla marketing & discover these empassioned nodes & give them some money to hold social events?
  • The existing technology mixers need more publicity so they can reach critical mass. (E.g. Tech Tuesdays, OpenCoffee...) By the way, here is Don Dodge's compilation of Boston startup events.
  • I framed the mission as an engineering problem: what is the most effective way to connect opportunities (internships, course credit, jobs for equity, business plan competitions, money to "nodes") to students through each of the available channels (class announcements, assisgnments, "nodes", advertising in student newspapers or table tents, or sneaky methods like TellMe's 2000-era recruiting method of descending upon the software labs at midnight with a stack of 10 pizzas)?
  • Some schools are effectively walled-in -- Harvard undergrads are unlikely to stray far from campus to take advantage of, say, MIT's community.
  • Unanimously decided: Scott should begin an East coast version of Valleywag.
I am certainly forgetting 50% of people's contributions, but perhaps they'll blog about it, too. I think Scott is doing a real and sincere service to the community with this. Perhaps the key entrepreneurial events will reach critical mass. Perhaps one or two particularly passionate undergrads and B-school students will take the lead & become the official "Chief Entrepreneurial Evangelists" to the outside world. Perhaps more early-stage sources of capital will emerge.

Scott's blog, by the way, is here: Innovation Economy.

[edit: 23 Apr 08]


20 April 2008

Art ("Art"?), the world's worst song, and caching

Hello -

I suppose I'm late to the game, but I've been hearing about an art project of a Yale undergrad that is generating significant attention - I'll leave the details for the clickthrough. The university even declared it a hoax: "The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman's body." If you can stomach it, here's a recent story in the Yale Daily News, and a response by the artist.

I defy you to listen to this whole thing. Here is a piece of music that is calculated to be the most "unwanted" piece of music, with characteristics optimized to be nearly-universally disliked. (Think banjo, accordian, children's chorus, holiday lyrics, rap, and bagpipes.) See "Yo, Yo, I'm a Cowboy Now" at Quick Study. And turn the volume up.

"2,000 Microsoft fans convince Steve Ballmer no one uses Yahoo search." [Valleywag]

Nice weather? Go geocaching. J-Fav, Toby, and I headed out to a woodsy hill in Acton for an easy first cache of the year:

J-Fav finds it, as usual! (Great Hill Cache: GCBC31. Free registration required, but hey, c'mon - this is fun.)


ps Happy 2nd Birthday, Toby!

Grilled shrimp salad... easy, tasty, and protein-riffic

Here's a sunny-day recipe that hit the spot now that the clouds have parted over Boston for a whole day. I wanted something lemony and light that would keep me full & could be prepared in a matter of minutes while Toby was outside playing with mom. I guess this is a dumbed-down version of Legal Seafood's "grilled seafood antipasto."

Woah, I just checked two menus, and it looks like that's no longer available. That's too bad. That was one of the few reasonably-priced dishes there that almost lived up to the hype. Anyway, then:

Uncooked, cleaned, shelled shrimp (10) (TJ's)
Italian vinaigrette, e.g. Brianna's with the strawberry on the front, or something less sugary
3 rolled up deli slices of Swiss cheese
3 rolled up deli slices of turkey
Salad greens, something light and leafy and fancy-looking; not that crunchy crap (TJ's)
1/2 lemon (TJ's)
vegetable oil
those little cherry tomatoes (5-ish) (TJ's)
salt, preferably sea salt if you're snooty like me (TJ's)

TJ's = available @ Trader Joe's

  • (Defrost if needed + wash) + marinate the shrimp in a glass bowl for 5 minutes in the vinaigrette
  • Clean your oven's broiler & prep it by moistening a paper towel with some oil, and rubbing the broiler grille. Preheat the broiler.
  • Put on the oven fans. Really. Don't come crying when your smoke alarms go off.
  • Now that five minutes have gone by... With tongs, shake off the vinaigrette from each shrimp & place on the broiler.
  • Cook the shrimp for 2 minutes on each side. Watch and smell so you can remove the shrimp if the sugary vinaigrette starts smoking.
  • Arrange the greens, tomatoes, and deli slices on a plate.
  • Put those good-looking shrimp on that.
  • Squirt it with the 1/2 lemon.
  • If you don't mind sweet plus salty, sprinkle a tiny bit of sea salt on it.
  • Bask in your all-consuming awesomeness.

Hey, wow, as I'm typing this out, birds are chirping over the sound of a fife & drum corp practicing for this afternoon's parade.


17 April 2008

World's First Commercial Portable Device w/Pico-Projector

The folks at the display-industry analysis firm Insight Media report, "World's First Commercial Portable Product with Integrated Pico-Projector Unveiled in Hong Kong." (Display Daily) And it uses a ferroelectric microdisplay from DisplayTech, not MEMS from TI...

If you're into displays, I recommend signing up for their free daily e-mail news blast.


16 April 2008

Changing Notes within Chords

Hey musicians -

Sure, we're all aware that today's pop music is often more engineering than analog-instrument-playing. The engineering side is certainly advanced, though. Have you seen this product's ability to let you alter not just the pitch or key of chords, but to change individual notes within those chords?

Here's Celemony's "Direct Note Access" technology, which I noticed on Gizmodo:

Fourier transforms as far as the eye can see...


15 April 2008

Interlude: humor

Two McSweeney's lists:

"Lowbrow TV Programming for Linguists" (Andrew C. Duenas)

"An Accidental Merging of the 2007 Billboard Year-end Hot 100 with the Operating Report from My Bowel Resection" (Greta Boesel)


ps An extra, for Yalies: "What's in a (Yale) Typeface?" (YDN) Drat! I thought it was Palatino!

pps An extra, for those hoping to impress at get-togethers: Wonder how to play the piano part of U2's "New Year's Day"? Though I don't know what's better, the tutorial, or the guy's little brother. (YouTube)

Programming GPUs in CUDA

Rob Farber's article, "CUDA: Supercomputing for the Masses: Part 1," in Dr. Dobb's. (NVIDIA's "CUDA Toolkit is a C language development environment for CUDA-enabled GPUs." You can learn more about the compiler, debugger, etc. at CUDA Zone.)


12 April 2008

Projecting onto surfaces of arbitrary shape and orientation

Johnny Lee, a grad student at CMU, has received much well-earned notoriety for his use of Wii technology to get viewer position-corrected imagery on a 2-D display. (I.e., it seems 3-D because the imagery is portrayed with a perspective that matches your location, even though it's monoscopic.) You may have seen videos of this - if not, I recommend it! (YouTube)

You might not have seen his work, though, in projecting imagery onto surfaces of arbitrary orientation and shape. (Imagine that you are an architect who wants to simulate correct daylight and shadow onto building mockups, or...) See these two videos.

You can learn much more about these technologies here. By the way, Johnny's website is here: http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~johnny/


ps In other news - is it just me, or are the Boston-area allergies just INSANELY bad this week?

08 April 2008

Venture Capital Wear

T-Shirts for VCs, or, really, non-Web 2.0 entrepreneurs: Venture Capital Wear.

"Let's get your first no out of the way."



03 April 2008

"Time to Pretend"

Hello -

I finally tracked down the highly-engineered song that elbowed its way onto the otherwise grunge-heavy radio station the other day: "Time to Pretend" by MGMT, a tongue-in-cheek bit about the music industry. Available for a free listen at YouTube, give it a chance beyond the first 30 seconds.

While that's playing in the background:

  • Joel Spolsky on "The Bionic Office," an essay on architecting an office that helps software engineers do their best work.
  • The unfortunate rebranding of White Castle
  • The 1970s Radio Shack 150-in-one electronics kit. My grandfather bought me this when I was what... 6...? and it got me hooked on electronics.
  • Genetic algorithms superstar Melanie Mitchell's class, "Nonstandard computation"
  • Hey Cambridge/Somerville entrepreneurs: any of you been to the coffee club?
  • I am very slowly learning C++ on the evenings in which I'm actually still conscious between 8pm and 10pm. Motivation? I need a substrate in which to think greedily about time series estimation (cough) financial market prediction. That would be an excellent use of GPUs...
  • Perhaps if I include a link to the Calacanis / Demo concurrent scheduling tirade, it'll magically disappear from the news sites I read.
  • One can only hope.