The online video arrives

Online video is finally here in force. It’s been predicted for years, but people aren’t replacing their television consumption with TV on the Internet. The preferred format on the net, whether it’s a matter of bandwidth or simply limited attention span (brain bandwidth), is a small video clip a few minutes long. Within that timeframe, there’s huge variety. You’ve got daily vlogs like Amanda Congdon’s Rocketboom and less frequent sitcom style video blogs like It’s JerryTime! (odd, disturbing, and funny; make sure and check out the shoebox).

There are a million lame, sampled, ripped, and amateur video clips on YouTube, but among them are some seriously well produced video parodies like this one, which made me laugh out loud. It answers the question: “What would the iPod packaging look like if it were designed by Microsoft?” The Pee-wee Herman music is a big plus.

(spotted on tingilinde)

Rike Orion – Adventures in ESL

Just because you can do something, does that mean you can teach it? Ever had a professor who you knew was brilliant, but was nevertheless feebly inarticulate when it came to helping you understand why the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality was so freaking important?

Doing is one skill, and teaching is another, and the intersection of the two is disappointingly rare.

Happily, my friend Alan Kennedy, who has written here before about his adventures in the music industry, is talented at both doing and explaining. He’s here this week to talk about his fascinating new window on the world. He generally steers clear of the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality, but you just might learn something useful about Jennifer Aniston.

Continue reading “Rike Orion – Adventures in ESL”

Katrina memories

Several years ago I went to New Orleans just before Mardi Gras. Remembering that Mardi Gras is coming up again (Fat Tuesday is February 28th this year), I wondered how well New Orleans was going to rise to the occasion. There’s plenty of brave talk about the show going on, and Lord knows they need the tourist dollars, but honestly, six months after being nearly washed away, how big a show can they put on right now?

I went to, and to look around there, you’d never know that anything bad happened since last year. But if you look closely, there is a Mardi Gras blog that captures the good and bad news. Various parades have been cancelled due to funding and insurance problems, and lots of corporate money didn’t come through. But the party is on, and no mistake.

From the Mardi Gras blog, I jumped over to the main page and found a Voices of Katrina section. This site asks readers to send in their stories, and it’s pretty riveting stuff. Here’s one I recommend:
The long road out of Mordor.

We saw police cars at the top of the entrance to the bridge. We saw guys in camoflauge holding shotguns. OH MY GOD – PROTECTION!!! I was smiling – we would get help up there. A young guy in camo pants and light colored shirt pointed his gun at us and yelled for us to get off the bridge. It was then that I realized these guys may be worse than the looters. Kevin yelled at him that the bridge is the only way out of the city that wasn’t underwater. He chambered a round and fired over our heads. I felt like the world would never be the same for me. It all came crashing down right then.

I wish them a happy Mardi Gras, wherever they are.

High performance GUIs

It’s a fairly common thing for technology gurus to bemoan the backwards state of the computer interface world by saying things like “It’s the 21st century, and I still have to use a mouse and a keyboard to look at my data?! When will this madness end?” Typically people who say this don’t offer alternatives, or the alternatives they do offer are impractically expensive. In
this column Jon Udell makes a passing reference to a talk by certified genius Bran Ferren of Applied Minds, Inc.

It’s crazy, Ferren says, to think that the “tiny soda straw of KVM” can be an effective bridge between the external complexity of the Net and the internal complexity of the human brain.

Yeah, whatever, Bran. Udell is wise enough to add “If your pockets are deep, you can hire Applied Minds to build a 3D haptic interface that’s exquisitely customized for your data and your tasks. But for most of us that’s not an option. We’ll be stuck with the keyboard/video/mouse arrangement for a while.” I always feel like the keyboard/mouse thing has gotten us pretty far and will take us considerably farther. Then again, I’m not a famous pundit. Still, the question has to be asked: what comes next? Some of the fairly obvious stuff is still hard to work out. For example, give me multiple simultaneous “touch points” in the interface. That is, why can’t I have two mice and move two things at once?

So here you go. This is a pretty compelling video from the research folks at NYU of what it might look like to touch the stuff on the other side of your screen. Still, I wouldn’t expect this on your home machine anytime soon. (By the way, my hat’s off to the folks at YouTube for making it darn easy to embed this video. Let me know if this doesn’t work on your machine.)

(via Tingilinde)

Strange machines and Wunderkammern

Quick: which is more important? Reason or wonder?

Don’t tell me you need more information… just answer the question. Which is more important? And which is more powerful? They clearly have a tangled relationship. Science fiction authors and scientists are always quoting each other. Arthur C. Clarke, quoting himself, famously conflated magic and technology: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I just finished reading a gift from my sister-in-law, an odd little book called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler. Actually, the book isn’t so odd… it’s the book’s topic that is odd: The Museum of Jurassic Technology. The cabinet of wonder is the museum, a bizarre and disordered little museum on a nondescript street in Los Angeles. But the more nonsense you read about it, the more sense it all makes. Wonder is the fountainhead of reason.

Wunderkammern, or rooms of wonder, were the sixteenth century predecessors of museums. In modern terms, they were eccentric collections of tchotchkes and oddities from the natural world thrown together with, ideally, a sense of style.

Like this: Athanasius Kircher takes us from here to here, where we learn about these and this which eventually takes us to Arthur Ganson’s Machines (make sure you watch Wishbone Man walking, that tiny tireless Sisyphus). And from Wishbone Man it is a short stroll to here.

Long-married couples

It’s much easier to be married for a short time than it is to be married for a long time. My parents were married on September 3rd, 1948 and they remain married to this day. That puts them in rare company. New York photographer Robert Fass was inspired by his own long-married parents to do a photo essay on the subject of durable marriages. He documented his work in a piece called As Long As We Both Shall Live. As it happens, through a connection with my sister, Fass interviewed and photographed my parents as part of the work.

The interview was several years ago, but Fass just scored some new publicity with the Christian Science Monitor:
What makes love last?
My mom even gets the last word. You go girl! The story ends with this.

One of his subjects, Sally, said “yes” in 1948 when her husband, Marcus, uttered those four little words, “Will you marry me?” Now, with the benefit of 57 years of experience, she offers this advice to Valentine’s Day lovers – and everyone else.

“There are three words that save a marriage,” she says. “And it’s not ‘I love you.’ It’s ‘Maybe you’re right.’ ”

UPDATE: ABC News has also picked up the story. See Happily Married for 40-Plus Years

Simulated liquid astounds

I would have bet good money that this kind of fluid simulation wouldn’t have been practical for another few years. This is a link to the gallery of movie clips at Scanline, which appears to be a German computer visual effects company. What they have to show off are various kinds of liquids in motion, and the results are amazing.

Water is notoriously difficult to get right in the movies… your eye is very good at detecting any weirdness in the behavior of badly animated water. As a result, up till now, all movies about naval battles and storms at sea were filmed with little models in great big swimming pools agitated by wind machines and small explosives. Even though, in such cases, the water is real, the waves are the wrong size relative to the little models, and it just looks awful. What the Scanline people are showing is that there are no more excuses for bad water physics in movies. Whenever they make the movie “Tsunami!”, I predict it will be darn disturbing.

Nabeel’s football numbers

Here’s some advice that might’ve done you some good yesterday: I’m going to tell you how to beat your fellow football party-goers when you play that choose-a-square gambling game. If I’ve already lost you, here’s the story in a nutshell… Most football games are boring. So you have to throw money at losing-odds gambling games to make things remotely interesting. In this particular game, everybody chooses a few boxes from an empty ten-by-ten grid. Each box in the grid corresponds to the last digits of each team’s score. If Seattle wins 7-0, and you own the corner of Seattle 7 and Pittsburgh 0, you win. Got it? (you can always learn more here.)

All that is just a set-up for Nabeel’s excellent analysis of Football Squares betting. Even the most casual observer of the sport quickly recognizes that a 7 is worth more than an 8. How does the smart money really line up? Nabeel tells you all about it here: A Closer Look at Football Squares. His article is worth a read because it’s based on real data and even has some nifty heatmap visualizations. The bottom line is that you actually do want to own the corner of 7 and 0, if you can get it. Of course, the real bottom line is that this advice wouldn’t have helped you much yesterday. The result 1-0, while not rare, is half as common as 7-0. Oh well. Wait till next season!

SkyScout finds stars for you

Point Celestron’s SkyScout gadget at a bright spot in the sky, press a button, and it tells you what sort of object you’re looking at, be it moon, planet, star, or galaxy (I wonder if it has a “That’s the sun you idiot!” response). It’s based on GPS and some other undisclosed magic, and it sounds so appealing my skept-o-meter went off. I looked for hands-on reviews, but it all seems to be enthusiastic pre-release press straight from the manufacturer. The SkyScout won’t ship until March. So it might still be a disappointment when you hold it in your hands. But if this thing really performs, wow! It can identify what you’re looking at, and it can guide you to something you want to look at.

If it takes off, it’s bound to lead to many similar products. Imagine a product that answers these questions… What building is that over yonder? Which one of those is Mount Monadnock? Is that store open now? How much did that house cost? Nice! What’s the phone number of the person who lives in there? Is she single? You’re right, that’s a cute picture. Sure, go ahead and call her. Wait! Is that her getting out of the car over there? It is? Maybe I’ll go introduce myself. Do these pants make my butt look big? What? No, I don’t think my butt is Mount Monadnock. Ha ha. Very funny. Keep up the wisecracks, you’re going straight back to the store.

Happy Groundhog Day

Groundhog day is one of my favorite holidays. Not because of the antics of our rodent friend Marmota monax, but rather because the northern hemisphere is filling up with light again. We are halfway from solstice to equinox, having made it through the dark passage. Congratulations!