Linkify speeds the blogger

If you blog, Linkify from Xenomachina is a fantastically useful tool. If you don’t, I’m not sure it’s very useful, but it’s so good at what it does it’s worth a post.

Suppose you were writing along, and you happened to mention Dizzy Gillespie and his cameo appearance in the movie Bedtime for Bonzo. In order to add some credibility to this rather surprising story, you’d like to add a link or two. This involves opening up a browser, searching for a relevant document, grabbing the URL, bringing it back to the blogging environment, and wrapping it around your selected text.

Or does it?

Modern bloggers can now simply highlight the text (“Dizzy Gillespie”) and mash on the Linkify bookmark. Pick the first option, a Wikipedia link, and you’re done. Presto linko.

Many people are surprised to hear that Dizzy Gillespie made a cameo appearance in Bedtime for Bonzo. There is a good reason for this.


(spotted at

Where do you make all that beautiful stuff?

Even when I don’t care much for the product of an artist’s work, I am fascinated by the process they use to create it. The stories are so often surprising: what appears simple was five years in the making, or perhaps a magnum opus arrived in one crowded week. What inspired them? How long did they spend working on it? What does their workspace look like?

Some creative types make lovely temples to their craft, places where you’d love to linger and bask in the pregnant glow. Others can crank out great work in filthy cramped quarters. On My Desk is a site, a blog actually, that has the tagline “Creative folk share the stuff on their desks.” In it, you get to see what practicing artists’ workspaces are like. It’s a lot of fun to compare the neat with the dirty, the cluttered with the spare. And yet they’re all doing more or less the same thing. How does it work?

One of the reasons I enjoy comics is that, for some reason, comic artists will happily talk at great and articulate length about their influences, creative process, technique, and tools. The Comics Journal does a wonderful job recording and presenting these interviews. It’s rarer for a musician to have the same gift, but it’s a pleasure to read what any artist has to say about how and where they work.

I remember watching the end of the movie Let It Be, the part where they’re recording the title song, and I remember thinking at that moment, “So that’s what it looked like when they made that sound.”

Update: By happy coincidence, Greg just posted some pictures of his spacious basement recording studio.

Synthetic life and corn starch babies

How close are we to truly playing Dr. Frankenstein and creating life from scratch? Watch this video to the end to find out. It starts off pretty tame, but stick with it. The ending is the most profoundly disturbing tub of damp cornstarch you will ever meet. Wet cornstarch is weird stuff. Even without divine intervention, you can run across a vat of the stuff without sinking. But if you stand on it, you’ll sink like a rock. And if you shake it at a high frequency, well… take a look.

In all seriousness, a lot of people are trying to create a living thing of some sort from scratch. I came across this cornstarch video and a summary of recent artificial life research at Biocurious, a biology blog written by physicists.

Evolving robots

Read this story and you may well conclude a robot uprising is right around the corner.

Carl Zimmer’s recent post Evolving Robotspeak describes robotics research done by social evolution researcher Laurent Keller in Switzerland. Plenty of folks have used genetic algorithms to “breed” robots, but this is the first time I’ve heard of someone using family and colony models for their genetics. In a nutshell, if you breed individual robots to find virtual food, they quickly get trained to do pretty well. But if you breed them as families, they do even better. To put it in anthropomorphic terms, their intermingled genetics help them understand the value of cooperation.

It’s fascinating to see the genetic theories of social behavior borne out in a colony of robotic organisms. This Darwin guy may have been on to something after all.

Blue crescent moon from space

Be on the lookout for a lovely young crescent moon. It was beautiful this evening, just below Venus, which is putting on a dazzling Evening Star performance for something like a two month gig here. Still, as pretty as the moon looks from down here, I was amazed by today’s Astronomy Photo of the Day. Those fat cats in the International Space Station may be stealing food from the mouths of robotic space probes, but they sure do take some purty pictures.

By the way, don’t miss the fascinating conversation about music on the web going right now over on the Baconworks post. Is the web great for discovering and encouraging musical talent, or is it a miserable shadow of the glory days of the music industry when A&R men could discover fabulous talent and promote superstars worthy of the name?

The case of the disappearing teaspoons

NPR recently ran a story on missing teaspoons at a scientific institute in Australia. Spoons were vanishing at an alarming rate, and it became a question of some urgency to determine what was happening.

We’ve all heard the jokes about how washing machines send socks into another dimension. But honestly, this is just one step away from the archaic folk notion of spontaneous generation. As you recall, that’s the theory where rotting meat spontaneously turns into maggots, piles of dirty rags become mice, and valued local stores turn into Starbucks. But spontaneous generation just doesn’t happen, and neither does the spontaneous disintegration of teaspoons. Filling in as the modern versions of Redi and Spallanzani are Megan S C Lim, et al of the Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Research, Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Their paper is titled The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute.

From the paper, we read

In January 2004 the authors found their tearoom bereft of teaspoons. Although a flunky (MSCL) was rapidly dispatched to purchase a new batch, these replacements in turn disappeared within a few months. Exasperated by our consequent inability to stir in our sugar and to accurately dispense instant coffee, we decided to respond in time honoured epidemiologists’ fashion and measure the phenomenon.

Truth be told, however, this study addresses the rate and circumstances under which the spoons disappear, and it fails to address the root causes. Sadly, it concludes “People have no control over teaspoon migration; escape to a spoonoid planet and resistentialism are equally plausible explanations.” Maybe Starbucks do arise magically from overripe storefronts.

The Nietzsche Family Circus

Wow, it’s hard not to love the Nietzsche Family Circus, in which a random quote from Nietzsche is paired with a random strip from Bil Keane.


The insipid blandness of Jeffy, Dolly, et al. is skewered on the angry Teuton’s spear of righteousness, BUT the pompous old Kraut’s gassy bombast is deflated by the chirpy Keanesian bourgeoisie of Life at Home in the Suburbs. Despite nearly tripping the irony overload circuit-breaker, there’s something sweet and true about the resulting ensemble. It’s like finding an unhurt child in terrible car accident. (Spotted at Jeff Mather’s place.)

The polysemous paragon, or How the turkey got its name

The topic is Turkey and the question is: Which came first, the country or the bird? The country. But the next question is: Why should an Old World country be associated with a New World bird? The answer is the same as with so many other things in the New World: we tend to name new things by referring to old things that we already know. It worked like this: “Say! That funny bird (Meleagris gallopavo) over there looks like what we call a turkey cock (Numida meleagris) back home.” It’s the same reason Americans suffer with such dreadfully dull city names (“I have a great idea! Let’s call this place New York. New Amsterdam was a silly name.”).

The turkey cock (also known as a African helmeted guineafowl) was so-called because it was at one time imported through Turkey. So the funny American bird might be called The Bird That Looks Like That Bird I Know From Back Home That We Used To Buy From Those People in Turkey. Which is mercifully abbreviated to: turkey.

Okay, that’s easy enough. Polysemy is the word that applies here, and it happens all the time. It refers to the situation when the same word has different meanings, and it’s particularly interesting when there is a non-obvious connection between the two meanings that has been obscured by time.

It’s a Bohemian coffee shop.
We are going Dutch.
Would you care for some Scotch?
I’ll get out the good china.
I would like a Danish.
I am a Danish (cf. Ich bin ein Berliner)

But the really entertaining thing about the turkey is that it is some kind of champion polyseme. The word for turkey in Portuguese is peru. The French word is dinde (from d’Inde, meaning “from India”). The Turkish word for turkey is hindi. What is it about this bird that makes place names stick to it so thoroughly? Is there a reason why birds we eat get place names (Rhode Island reds, Cornish game hens) whereas birds we don’t eat get descriptive names (red-headed woodpeckers, yellow-rumped warblers)? And finally, is turkey an instance of metonymous polysemy or not?

I got launched onto this delightful topic by an entertaining and widely-cited article, How Turkey Got Its Name by Giancarlo Casale. It’s well worth reading.

(The picture shown here is a Meleagris gallopavo that started visiting my front yard last fall. You can just make out my daughter peeking out of our living room window.)

5000 years of Middle Eastern history

Jay Cz and my brother Tad both sent me this one: The Imperial History of the Middle East. It’s a nice idea. Watch 5000 years worth of history as it splashes paint across the Middle East.

This animated map is from a site called the Maps of War. They host a number of other interesting maps including a 90 second History of Religion with a premise similar to the one above.

Reno Balloon Race video

Here’s a video of last year’s Reno Balloon Race. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of hot-air balloons, and on occasion I’ve seen them in person, and they always struck me as docile, passive creatures. How can one balloon race another? But this time-lapse video shows just how alive they are.

Try to track just one of them around the sky. It’s a very organic scene, and somehow un-human, like a tidal pool ecosystem. The oscillatory swimming motion immediately reminded me of jellyfish. Which all makes me wonder that maybe there’s money in jellyfish races.