No more grinding teeth

I am a grinder and a clencher. Are you?

I wish I weren’t, but once I fall asleep, all the dentist’s good advice fades away, and the bruxism commences. This can lead to temporomandibular dysphoria (i.e. jaw pain). Pardon the language, but this dental jargon is too much fun. It gets much better up ahead. Anyway, I can live with the occasional headache, but it got to the point where I was wearing down my molars. Ick. You can get a bite guard to save your teeth (I have), but the guard actually encourages your perverse jaw muscles to clench more, since you’ve got this nice plastic thing to chew into. This leads to more headaches and eventually receding gums. It’s absolutely maddening when you do something undesirable while sleeping. You want to tell your sleeping self to knock it off, but that person and you are never awake at the same time.

I’m sharing all these lovely details because this story actually has a happy ending, and if you grind your teeth I want you to know about it. I was beginning to despair of finding a good solution, when my technically hip dentist suggested the latest thing in temporomandibular tension suppression. It’s a little plastic clip that goes over your front teeth. It’s brilliant! Your back teeth never meet. Furthermore, since your incisors were never built for grinding, they’re not really capable of letting you clench enough to give you a headache.

It’s called the NTI Tension Suppression System, and boy have they got an entertaining web site. There’s a charming Flash movie about the perils bruxism, and the dental geek jargon is magnificent:

When temporalis relaxation and ipsilateral translation of the condyle occurs unilaterally, the remaining scheme of occluding teeth becomes an influential factor in the presenting symptoms, of which, contacting canines during mandibular depression is highly desirable, as it minimizes condylar translation and muscle intensity, while directing the vector pull on the condyle more anteriorly than a posterior contact.

Amen to that, and may God bless the geeks who make the world a better place. And the condyles too, whatever they are.

Please love me, YouTube – now pay me!

YouTube seems to be taking off as the de facto way of sharing short videos. I’ve used them here a few times before, and I’ve been very impressed with how easy it is to embed video in a blog post. Now, from the heart of Media ContentLand, here’s the Hollywood Reporter on the fascinating love/hate relationship Hollywood has with YouTube: Biz not sure how to treat upstart YouTube. This is the best quote from the article:

“There’s been a few examples of marketing departments uploading content directly to the site, while on the other side of the company their attorney is demanding we remove this content,” YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley says.

This is all part of the complex equation that spells ultimate doom for Digital Rights Management. You will never learn to love me if you don’t meet me, and you will only meet me on sites that don’t have onerous DRM. And if you do love me, will you love me still when I stick you with an unexpected bill? Poor Hollywood can never decide whether she wants to be a coquette or a slut.

Voyaging through baby names

Have you seen the Baby Name Wizard’s NameVoyager yet? It’s the product of the prolific and masterful Martin Wattenberg and his wife and baby name consultant Laura Wattenberg (she maintains an entertaining baby name blog). Martin is a scientist/artist at IBM Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We were actually lucky enough to have him give a guest lecture at our company about, among other things, the NameVoyager. One of the things he mentioned in his talk was that this work, more than any of the official research he was doing, resonated with people throughout the company, including the folks in the executive suite. This collaborative work between him and his wife helped IBM VPs understand more than anything else before it the value of effective data visualization.

The NameVoyager perfectly encapsulates that golden rule of entertainment: if you want to fascinate your audience, put them in the show. Show me me, and you’ve got me by the eyeballs. Naturally the first thing anyone does with the NameVoyager is try their own name. And then it’s off to the races: spouse name, sibling names, and parent names in short order. Then you start to notice the cultural trends. My favorites are names you might imagine on a woman’s bowling shirt. Betty. Carol. Barbara. Joan. They were all teenagers together in the mid-century, and then they faded from view.

My friend and amateur genealogist Jay Czarnecki recently sent me some of his own observations on the NameVoyager. Here’s what he has to say.

Continue reading “Voyaging through baby names”

Googling Air Force One

Have you ever been flying over some remarkable landmark or unusual-looking city and wondered: what is that? I’ve always wanted, as I stared out from my window seat, an easy way to answer the question “What place is that?” or “Why are those big buildings all arranged like that over there?” Sometimes, on transcontinental or international flights you get a live update of your position, but even that doesn’t always answer your questions. What I want is a way to bookmark wherever I am when I have a question so I can figure it out later. And finally, these days, the tools are on my side.

I recently went on a business trip during which I had a layover in Washington, DC at the airport that I used to know as Washington National, but which is now Reagan National. Flying into DC, our plane passed over another large airport which had a funny hexagonal building at one end. I’ve played the airport guessing game before, and it’s pretty hard to remember enough distinctive details to track it down later. But now I have Google Earth: I can compare what I saw with what the satellite saw. In this case, I speculated that I was looking at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, and I further speculated that the big funny building was the hangar for Air Force One. This was, as we say in the business, a bullshit speculation. I have long known the value of making a confident and plausible assertion pass for knowledge. But it gets to be pretty thin soup if you do it enough. I want real answers. Once I got home, I opened up Google Earth, zoomed into eastern Maryland, and there was exactly the building I saw from the air, and it was labeled as… the hangar for Air Force One. Speculation is cheap, but when you get to exchange your bullshit dollars for real money, that’s darn satisfying.

The tools are getting better all the time. Not only can you use the web to follow the ground track of a moving plane, you can go to to see, in three dimensions, the current location of your plane. I didn’t do this in my case, but theoretically it would have been easy to look out the window, note the time, and then compare that time with the 3-d trajectory of the flight. Where was I? There I was. What was that? Air Force One. Simple.

Beatles juggling redux

I’m betting that in the last two weeks somebody sent you a link to the video of the guy who juggles to Beatles music. In case you are one of the people who missed this gawk-and-forward juggernaut, here it is. Chris Bliss juggles continuously throughout the entire “Golden Slumbers” medley from Abbey Road. It’s a well-choreographed routine, the crowd goes wild, and the video propagated like a wave throughout the entire blogosphere. But what was really interesting was the juggle-geek backlash. If you’re a serious juggler (I’m not), you might look at this guy Bliss and say “What a hack! Only three balls… the only thing he has to be proud of is that he went dropless for four minutes and twenty seven seconds.”

In fact, that’s exactly what a juggle-geek named Jason Garfield said. In fact, he said much worse here, if you care to read it. Garfield is a phenomenal juggler, and he posted a sort of challenge video using the exact same soundtrack as Bliss, but doing a much much harder routine with five balls. Now what do you think about that? It really leads to this question: what is the nature of entertainment? Or rather this: what do you owe your entertainer? Garfield’s opinion is clear: you owe it to him to know the difference between hack juggling and “real” juggling. If you can’t tell the difference, he don’t need your steenkin’ applause. Here’s Garfield: “It’s fine if people are entertained by this. But they should not assume he is a good juggler just because he kind of juggled to the music with three balls. A perfect example of how little people know about juggling is that one of his strongest audience response points was when he JUST juggled the BASIC pattern.” Stupid audience! Doesn’t know its juggling patterns!

People may say Bliss is a great juggler, but what they really mean is they saw him perform and they were entertained. Bliss knows how to work the crowd. John Grisham put a lot of talented writers out of work. The contempt of angry geeks is cheaply had, but an entertainer is an entertainer.

I found this last quote on Garfield’s STOLEN MATERIAL page.

… in the juggling community, if you are performing
these routines you are considered to be at least partly a hack.
The percentage of your entire act that is made up of hack material
determines the percentage of how much of a hack you are.

1. Juggling while eating an apple.
2. Passing around a volunteer and knocking something out of their mouth.
3. Juggling Chainsaws
4. Juggling Knives
5. Juggling fire (Torches)

I know I’m embarrassing you, because I saw you doing that flaming chainsaw routine of yours last weekend. You hopeless hack.

Happy Pi day (3/14)

Today is a good day to give thanks for pi, the magical ratio without which circles would be lumpy misshapen things, wheels would clunk-clunk-clunk, and ball bearings would look like raisins. Pi was invented in 1737 by a Welsh typesetter named Samuel P. Maddock who was in need of a rounder letter O than had been available up to that point. Quickly realizing his invention’s potential, he formed the Grand Rounde Companie in 1738 and promised to “reinvent the wheel.” Thereafter he struggled for several years to secure the financial backing needed to take his invention, which he called the “Maddock,” to a larger market (“This circle of yours sounds wicked and French,” said one banker). Destitute, he eventually was forced to sell out to Leo Pi, who thereby acquired the most lucrative patent in history. To this day, his estate receives licensing fees for every clockface, coin, and bubble.

For some pi-related fun, head over to Pi-Search where you can search for runs of specific numbers in the first two hundred million digits of pi (give or take, depending on how you count the “3” at the beginning). I didn’t find 123456789, but 123456 is in there. More importantly, you can find the run 31415926 starting at position 50,366,472. I have yet to determine if the entire sequence of pi appears in itself somewhere, but I’m off to a good start.

Incidentally, in Europe, today (14.3.2006) is known as Not-Pi Day (or Fourteen and Three Tenths Day in Ireland). (Spotted at tingilinde)

From Google maps to gene maps

One of the nifty things you can do with Google maps is grab them and move them around, sliding along a road, for example, until you come to your destination. The continuity gives you the sense that you’re actually looking at a single giant physical map, a map so big that it would cover the state of Nebraska if it were real.

There are lots of maps out there… would any others benefit from the Google maps Ajax treatment? Of course. The folks at UC Berkeley’s Holmes lab are building something they call GBrowse, for Generic Genome Browser. If you’ve ever seen the UC Santa Cruz Genome Browser, you know there’s a brutal tradeoff between available data and screen real estate. There are so many points of interest along the sequence, but you can only see so much of it. Managing the interface is button-clicky hassle. The Berkeley team has solved (or mitigated anyway) this problem by using the Google maps approach. See what you think here: Prototype Generic Genome Browser client. It’s much nicer than the Santa Cruz version. I can’t do much to interpret the data; I’m a tourist here. But it sure is fun cruising around. (Seen on Flags and Lollipops)

Electric donkey

I’ve been amazed to see how quickly web video has transitioned from novelty to mainstream. So often now interesting links come along with video. Here’s the latest, an electric pack mule.

When I read that Boston Dynamics had made a stable robot quadruped, I was intrigued enough to follow the link and look at the clip. What I wasn’t prepared for was how disturbing it was going to be to see two pairs of skinny disembodied human legs nervously schlepping across a field. I’m anthropomorphizing here, but you’ll forgive me when you see the video. I imagine they put the little black leggings on to keep mud out of the leg machinery, but those tights are perfectly tuned to make the effect all the more disturbing. I kept looking for the people in the machine, the stunt midgets or whatever, that were really making this thing work. Inspiring robotics, but I would be creeped out if these guys were carrying my luggage. Would I have to give them a tip? Would I have to tip both of them? How long after we invent truly helpful robots before they turn into surly, intimidating tip hounds?

As if it weren’t weird enough to see this skinny-legged push-me pull-you donkey freak, the same company makes robotic cockroaches. Here’s a movie of one named RHex. There’s another one that climbs walls, called RiSE, and then there’s a doggy that does a dandy syncopated tap dance of a walk. Here’s the whole family. The movies are all good. The overall impression I get after looking at these videos is either A) these robots are sophisticated visitors from the future, or B) they are villains in a lame Half-Life mod.

Old NASA movies online

When I was in high school, I spent one summer working a NASA Langley Research Center as part of something called the SHARP program (Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program). Basically, I got a really cool minimum wage job for the summer working on experimental airplanes. For the most part, it was a makework program to encourage science-oriented students. I had a lot of free time. One of my favorite things to do during lunch was to go to the base library and check out official NASA films of various space missions, particularly the Apollo missions. I would take these large canisters of honest-to-goodness film and walk down the hall to the room with the projector, thread the film, and watch movies of guys doing zero-g tumbling in Skylab or some such thing. I loved it, and I knew how lucky I was to be in one of the few privileged places on Earth where it was so easy to look at movies like that.

Now NASA, the National Archives, and Google have teamed up to put these same movies on the web. Anybody with access to broadband Internet can watch what I watched back in 1982. Watching some of them again brings up several competing emotions. First is the same raw amazement I have always felt watching these stories of people flying to the moon in tin cans. Did that really happen? It’s still incredible. At the same time, I am nostalgic for that summer in Virginia long ago. And then there’s the amusement of what documentary films looked like 35 years ago. Finally there is the thrill that millions of people can do now what so few could do back then… watch, mouth agape, and be inspired by these crazy stories. Then again, maybe they’re all playing Grand Theft Auto instead.

Here’s the index so far: type:nasa – Google Video. I recommend the Apollo 8 mission. Debrief: Apollo 8 1969.

Design director’s commentary

From Bruce Nussbaum’s design blog I followed a link to metacool, a blog by IDEO “design thinker” Diego Rodriguez. The link that caught my eye was this one about the designer’s commentary for the Honda Ridgeline pickup, something analogous to the director’s commentary on a DVD. One of my peeves is people who talk about design design design in a very hand-wavy way. It’s an easily abused word. The way people really learn design is by doing it, and the very best way to learn it is to do it with people who are really good at it, so you can see how they approach and dissect problems. I think Rodriguez is on to something when he talks about a new generation of designers learning their craft by “the digital equivalent of an oral storytelling tradition.” I would sure listen to a podcast of designers describing how and why they made the decisions they did.