God detectors

Have you ever suffered the occasional doubt that Divine Providence is manifest? Do you ever wonder why, if God is so great, He doesn’t make himself a little more obvious (not to mention useful)? Maybe you just haven’t given Him the right opportunity. If your home or place of employment is outfitted with a Yo, God! God Detector, you just may get the sign that you seek. Prayer is your most likely avenue to grace, but high-quality instrumentation can’t hurt.

Alphabets of the world

I keep running into interesting scripts and alphabets these days: Elvish, Tamil, Malayalam. Recently I came across this site: Alphabets of the World. I would have been in heaven if I’d had access to such a thing as a seventh grader. I remember going to the great big library at the local university as a kid and looking for resources like this. Codes and secret languages a common enough geek-boy pastime, but there’s also a deep-seated and universal appeal to exotic-looking hieroglyphics. They embody and radiate the notion that meaning is present yet hidden from view, which is itself a pretty good working definition of that hard-to-pin-down word mystery. Unknown glyphs reek of the mysterious.

Back on a more mundane plane, the Alphabets of the World site offers many practical explanations. Have you ever wanted a compact explanation of why Arabic writing looks the way it does? Want to learn the story of the origins of Cherokee or Korean scripts? This is a good place to visit.

Finally, lest I be accused of being too focused on the way languages look when written, here is a site that details (obsessively) how one particular English phrase sounds when spoken by people from all over the world: speech accent archive. It’s fun to browse around. I found the person from North Carolina, and sure enough, that woman could have grown up next door to me.

A Tamil-speaking friend

Hey, look at this: Navan links to my blog. And Navan speaks Tamil. I have always been fascinated by exotic-looking characters and writing… that’s how I got started on Elvish (which now seems to be taking over my site). Ever since I bought Nakanishi’s Writing Systems of the World years ago, I have been enchanted by Tamil writing. Elvish is a made-up language, but Tamil is spoken by millions, and it looks beautiful. It’s interesting to consider that Tamil looks completely mundane to those millions. But I guess Elves don’t get worked up about Elvish, and igpays don’t get frothy for Pig Latin.

At first I thought Navan had spotted my blog from half a world away, but then I realized he works at my company! Intriguingly, he has a link called How to read Tamil. I studied it for a while, but sadly I am still no closer to reading Tamil. But Windows XP and Internet Explorer did a fine job of digging up the right font for me. At least I think so. But of course… I don’t read Tamil.

Sodaplay lives!

I’ve talked about sodaplay here before, the wonderful, whimsical, Java-powered world where people from around the net build matchstick monsters and bugs and lizards. The thing started out simply enough, but since the creators had done such a good job of making it extendable by visitors, a huge community of sodaplayers has built up. Visit the sodazoo and you’ll see dozens of new contributions for every day. More recently, they’ve added the sodarace, in which these little robotic bugs race each other in a Darwinian battle for supremacy. It’s a great proving ground for ideas about design, AI, and natural selection.

On the sodaplay pages I found a link to this extraordinary “real world” example of sodaplay matchstick monsters: strandbeest is a site devoted to the mechanical creations of artist Theo Jansen. He is building animal-like constructions out of plastic yellow tubes. The results are both disturbing and exhilarating. Be sure and look at the remarkable movies and images. The robots are here. Please take care not to disturb them.

Fun with physics

Paul Falstad is a software engineer who likes to make nifty applets. His Math and Physics Applets site is just loaded with beautiful illustrations of interesting phenomena. I remember fifteen or so years ago when the Mac was young, my physicist friend Dan at Stanford was busy (among other things) writing fun little graphical programs that illustrated various physics experiments. But it really seems like this kind of demo-ware really needed Java and the web to fulfill its promise.
Anybody can go to Falstad’s site and browse quickly for the good stuff. And there’s a lot of good stuff here. Recommended: the Fourier visualization, the 2-D vector fields demo, and the 3-D vector fields demo.

Glow-in-the-dark fish

My friend Kristin got two fish today for her office. One is black and the other is gold. She also got some fake underwater grass that glows in the dark. I think instead she should have bought transgenic mutant fish that glow in the dark. They really exist. Take a look at this SFGate article: One fish, two fish, red fish … blue fish?. Apparently transgenic fish are illegal in California, but not here (Massachusetts) and not in Nevada. So if a transgenic fish is swimming in Lake Tahoe, do the California authorities make sure and corral it onto the Nevada part of the lake?

Zippity do

More fun stuff from the digital artist/UI designer Ben Fry. Go to zipdecode and type in your zip code. Then type in the zip code of some other place. This is a good example of how zero-latency response encourages experimentation. If there was significant lag each time you hit a digit, it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. For instance, 44444, which will send you to Newton Falls, Ohio, is the only five digit repeater in the entire United States. And they’re pretty darn proud of it, from the looks of their URL: http://www.44444.com/.

Do you suppose, assuming you were basically in the right place, you could pay the US Postal Service to assign your city 00000? That would be worth some serious Chamber of Commerce money. Make a great tourist attraction. I’d get off the highway in Kansas to see the 66666 post office. Send a few postcards. Maybe drop by the Greyhound Hall of Fame while I’m in the area.

Good iPod. Happy iPod.

A few days ago, in the violent throes of a severe case of buyer’s remorse, I let fly at my poor trembling iPod. Ranting was both therapeutic and surprisingly entertaining. It went like this: I was uncertain about the big purchase. I finally got nudged over the edge, hesitating late adopter that I am, and made the big purchase. I brought home the big purchase and plugged it in. Not only did the big purchase not work, but it broke my whole computer. Then I got plenty mad you bet.

Since then I have upgraded my PC to Windows XP, read the iPod manual, and talked to several helpful and sympathetic people. Now all is well… I pulled out of the death spiral. I am across the divide and perfectly insufferable. Let me show you my sleek and lovely beautifully designed iPod! Steve Jobs is a genius!

It’s interesting to watch myself go through the compressed hate-to-love trajectory, because I see it all the time from the manufacturer’s viewpoint. I make sofware for a living, and I have often listened with grave concern as a customer absolutely rips into my product and my company. Wait long enough, provide a few well-timed hints and WHAMMO! they’re your new best friend. I like those customers. And now I am one.

My shiny new iPod makes me think about the old BBC radio program (sorry, programme) Desert Island Discs. The premise: what records would you take with you to a desert island? Suppose instead we made a show called Desert Island iPod. It might work something like this.

HOST: Hello and welcome to our show. Tell us, what would you put on your Desert Island iPod?
YOU: Every single piece of music I’ve ever owned or thought about in my entire life.
HOST: Oh I see. Well, thanks awfully for joining us today. Cheers!

ZOMBO has the answer

ZOMBO.com is one of the more remarkable sites I’ve seen in a long time. I highly recommend a visit. The intro animation takes a little while, but it’s worth the wait. Take in the site for a few minutes… maybe buy a ZomboTee t-shirt. Then go to the “NewZletter” news sign-up page. You don’t have to actually sign up for the newsletter. It’s just an entertaining page.

Six minutes of terror

All eyes are on Mars tonight. The latest rover has officially landed, but as I type these words we haven’t heard yet whether he’s taking phone calls just yet. I was poking around the JPL Mars Rover site tonight, and I’ve been impressed that the pages seem to be loading quickly. Either nobody cares or they’ve solved some of their bandwidth problems since the last rover mission. They’ve also got some terrific videos about the mission. My favorite was about the entry, descent, and landing phase of the mission, affectionately known as Six Minutes of Terror. The probe has to go through an insane pyrotechnic metamorphosis with split second timing on its way to the Martian surface. The video describing all this is very slickly produced, including some nifty mission animations. (See the MPG version or the Quicktime version). It’s nice to see flashes of the old exciting NASA that makes you proud to pay taxes.