Virtual reality radio control flying

Roy sent me this one: a radio-controlled airplane with a difference. Here is a guy who modified his model plane to include not just a camera but a wireless video link so he can see what the plane sees as he flies. If you’ve ever tried to fly a model airplane, you know that it can be tricky to work how the plane is oriented. A video camera helps solve this problem, plus it gives you the opportunity to be a neighborhood voyeur, though not a terribly subtle one. So far this is the kind of thing that the military puts to use over Iraq, but this guy does one better: he puts the video camera on gimbals and matches the camera to the orientation of his head. Then, with the video display mounted on a special helmet, he gets the complete sensation of sitting in a tiny airplane, now looking left, now looking right. Sure looks like fun. Look closely and you’ll see he even painted tiny instruments in the model cockpit.

Improved technology is having a big impact on the world of model airplanes. These days, people can do insane aerobatics at an indoor basketball court with their radio-controlled airplanes.

And as long as we’re on aircraft-themed videos, here’s one of my favorites, this time with great big airplanes. This is an F-18 pilot taking his plane through its paces, but the very best part is the beginning. The action of the catapult has been perfectly timed to match the first chords of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.” Turn up the volume!

Watch this if you’ve ever wondered why fighter pilots are saddled with such monstrous egos. If you got to do that for a living, I don’t know how you’d avoid it.

Bookmarklets for fun and profit

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time playing around with JavaScript these days. As the backbone of the Web 2.0 Ajax technology, homely old JavaScript is finally having its moment in the sun.

Ajax gets all the press, but I think bookmarklets are loveliest little JavaScript tools around. Bookmarklets (also called favelets in deference to Internet Explorer Favorites) are very short JavaScript programs that fit right on the link underneath your mouse click. Click on this link, for example, to see every occurrence of the word “the” on this page turn yellow. (When you get tired of all the yellow, just reload the page.) I adapted this from Jesse Ruderman’s bookmarklets site. Another excellent source of top notch bookmarklets is

I decided to try a little bookmarkletting myself to scratch an itch I had. I write MATLAB code for a living, and one of the MATLAB features I really like is that I can publish directly from code to HTML. Using this technique, you can let the code “tell its own story” as it were. Here is what a published MATLAB program looks like: Building Sundials. I wanted a way to pluck the original source code out of the HTML version of that code, and JavaScript was the way to do it. I wrote a simple little bookmarklet that does the trick. Then my friend Steve Eddins found my quick hack and improved it significantly.

Steve Eddins runs a blog at work called Steve on Image Processing. He’s allowed to do that since he’s a professional image processor. His blog is essentially written in MATLAB and then published to blog format. He has added the new and improved bookmarklet to the bottom of each post so that you can now reconstitute the working code that he started with. Scroll down until you find a link that read “Get the MATLAB code.” It’s a nice way to peek behind the scenes and see a great mind at work.

A successful walk for autism research

Last Sunday we (along with several thousand others) had a great morning for our Autism Speaks walk along the Charles River in Cambridge. I want to acknowledge everyone who walked and everyone who supported the walk by donating to the Autism Speaks research fund. For the second year in a row, this included two teams dedicated to my son Jay: one in Massachusetts, and one in North Carolina (where much of Jay’s extended family lives). All together we raised more than $13,000!

Here is the Massachusetts team. That’s Jay in the bottom right corner.

And this is the gang in North Carolina, captained by Jay’s aunt Tonya and full of people who love Jay.

Thanks everybody!

Industrial beauty

This short video is making the rounds, but it really is a terrific film.

When we see the glamorous beauty portrayed in ads and movies, it’s easy to forget what a construction it is. This industrial beauty is a thing built by many skilled artisans across a significant period of time. As long as we recognize this fact, we don’t have to fall into the trap of identifying it overmuch with the person underneath, the matrix on which it was constructed. It reminds me of those outrageous flower-covered floats on the Tournament of Roses Parade. We can admire the craft of it while acknowledging that it is wholly artificial.

There is an interesting parallel with the makeup required for movies in which the characters are grotesque or monstrous. There are plenty of articles about how this or that actor had to sit for four hours of makeup before each shoot as rubbery tentacles and prosthetic cheekbones were glued into place. It’s understood that ugliness is a movie-industry construct. But when it comes to beauty, we prefer to believe the fiction. How disappointing it is to learn that the man who plays Romeo isn’t really in love with the woman who plays Juliet.

Dodgy dogma and biology

Dogma is a funny word to appear so prominently in a science like biology. Any picture, any model, any theory currently in vogue is resting on the shifting sands of biological weirdness. I love, for instance, the fact that the Nobel Prize in medicine this year was awarded for major form of genetic regulation that nobody knew existed eight years ago.

A few weeks ago after I posted a link to some lovely molecular biology animations, my good friend Mike Onken made a comment that contained an oblique but cutting reference to the so-called Central Dogma of molecular biology. Since Mike is a certified Level 50 Molecular Biology Warlock at Washington University in St. Louis, I knew there was a good story behind that remark. I hounded him until he gave it up. “Everybody loves the Central Dogma,” I intoned. “It’s so dogmatic, and quasi-religious certainty is very sexy these days. What have you got against it?”

I got the response I was looking for, which I happily share below. Please allow me to present the words of Mike Onken:
Continue reading “Dodgy dogma and biology”

The Last Tree of Ténéré

Look at this satellite view of central Niger. Zoom out, and then zoom out some more, and you’ll eventually see that you’re staring at a vast expanse of the trackless and empty Sahara. Except for this historical footnote: at the very center of this map stood, for several decades, a single tree, as well known by the desert-crossing caravans as an island would be in the middle of the Pacific.

I came across the heartbreaking story of the Last Tree of Ténéré while visiting the estimable Athanasius Kircher Society. Here’s what they had to say there.

The Ténéré wastelands of northeastern Niger were once populated by a forest of trees. By the 20th century, desertification had wiped out all but one solitary acacia. [It] had no companions for 400 km in every direction. Its roots reached nearly 40 m deep into the sand. In 1973, the tree was knocked over by a drunken Libyan truck driver. It has been replaced by a simple metal sculpture.

What a story! A desperately poignant one-tree recapitulation of Jared Diamond’s Collapse thesis. Diamond tells in his book how, some time around 1680, the Easter Islanders chopped down the last of the great palm trees that once covered the island. And he poses the rhetorical question: “What did they say as they chopped down the last palm tree?” Which makes me wonder what our friend the truck driver said on that fateful day in 1973.

Was it: “Oh great! I got the whole freakin’ Sahara and somebody puts a tree right in front of my truck! Now I’m gonna be late for poker night.” Or maybe: “Dude, I am so wasted…” Or my favorite: “Hey, watch this!”

Jesus in the operating room

The Boston Globe did a story yesterday called Healing the Body to Reach the Soul. It’s part of a series on faith-based initiatives called “Exporting Faith.” On the front page it had this picture, taken from a brochure published by a non-denominational Christian organization, of Jesus guiding the hand of a surgeon in the operating room. Without addressing any of the touchy political or religious implications of an image like this, I think that there is no disputing that this is a darn funny image. I confess to adding the speech balloon above the surgeon’s head, because the picture just begs to be part of a caption contest. First I thought, what would Jesus be saying in a situation like this? But then I thought, no, the real humor is going on in the surgeon’s head. What’s he saying?

“Are your hands clean? Because they look filthy.”

“I’m just saying, we’re only one quick miracle away from two martinis in the surgeon’s lounge.”

You tell me what he’s saying.

Raising money for autism research

Every fall, my family participates in a fund-raising walk to support autism research. My seven year old son Jay is severely autistic and unable to talk. When we tell people he can’t talk, they often assume that he must still understand things fairly well, but this is not the case. Sometimes I want to explain that Jay has no language, but this is a hard concept to get across quickly. In a practical sense, it means Jay is profoundly apart from the rest of us, and likely always will be. The good news is that, as far as we can tell, Jay doesn’t suffer any mental anguish as a result of his separation. He’s generally a pretty happy kid. His parents had to mourn the passing of the child they thought Jay was. This caused real pain, but crucially this child that did pass away wasn’t Jay. He was a fiction, a projection of the hope that imagines the future can be predicted. When you look into a child’s eyes, what do you see? It’s hard to see the child, so often cloaked by heavy layers of expectation and projection. That is one gift Jay has given me: I have learned the importance of seeing Jay when I look at Jay. It’s a hard lesson to learn.

Dealing with Jay has taught me many valuable lessons, but all the same, I’d rather that you never have to confront autism in your own family. Unless we can understand more about how and why autism happens, there is the increasing and disturbing possibility that you will encounter it in your extended family some day. Research is the only way forward, and research costs money. That’s why I’m asking for your support. Go to the “Walk for Autism” web site and pledge some money for our walk. I’ll thank you right now for doing it.

I am also including below my wife’s annual fund-raising letter.
Continue reading “Raising money for autism research”

HP photo slimming

I need your help on this one. Is this a feature or a terrible omen for our deranged times? HP has introduced a digital camera effect called the slimming feature. Here’s their ad copy on the topic.

They say cameras add ten pounds, but HP digital cameras can help reverse that effect. The slimming feature, available on select HP digital camera models, is a subtle effect that can instantly trim off pounds from the subjects in your photos!

When I saw someone had linked to this from a blog I was reading, I was convinced it was a fake. I kept looking at the HP URL trying to work out if it was a hacked address of some kind. But no, this is a real feature on real cameras. I can’t figure out if I’m off base being astonished by this. I’ve talked to people who can’t figure out why I find this so disturbing. I guess slimming your photo is better than sticking your finger down your throat after brunch, but it seems dishonest in some very damaging ways.

If it takes off in the marketplace, though, I’m thinking about selling a JolieCam. It’s a camera that, no matter who you point it at (your dog, your grandma, your half-eaten tuna sandwich), always spits out a glamorous photo of Angelina Jolie. Why look frumpy when you can look vampy?

So what’s your verdict on the slimming feature: funny harmless feature, or one more sign that the apocalypse is near?

Stellarium stargazing software

I’ve been on a good run with free software lately. As part of some recent work I’ve been doing with my Sky Clock, I wanted to check my accuracy against a web site that showed the current sky. Was Saturn where I said it should be? As part of my Google search for such a web site planetarium, I came across a mention of Stellarium, a free open-source stargazing program for your computer. It looked pretty, and the fact that it was free made it a simple decision to install it and take a look at it. And lo and behold, it’s very good. Long ago I owned a copy of Red Shift from Maris, and it wasn’t a great experience. The interface was bulky and there was all kinds of weird content that I didn’t really need. Stellarium by contrast is very simple. Its interface feels a little Unix-y and text heavy (lots of single-letter accelerators that expert users can memorize), but it does exactly what I needed, it’s beautful, and it’s free.

As a professional software developer, this last part always gives me pause. I’ve lost count of the number of really useful really good programs I use that are completely free. Not ten minutes ago I downloaded the free Eclipse-based JavaScript/HTML editor Aptana along with a nice free font (Proggy Clean) to use with it. Last night I downloaded a free genealogy program called Personal Ancestral File. Again, it’s pretty basic, but it does exactly what I need. I don’t need and I don’t want to pay for all the fancy-pants features they cram into Family Tree Maker, another product I once spent money on.

Commercial vendors can charge for new features, but they must eventually run out of meaningful novelty. Their free competitors, who by definition can’t be run out of business, will ultimately swallow all features worth copying.
So I wonder: in the long run, will all software be free? I have become convinced that the answer is very nearly yes. In the long run, all software will be free, or hosted as a service, or both. Money will still pour through the system, but by a very different set of sluiceways.