Johnny Lee’s Wiimote magic

Via O’Reilly Radar I came across this video by Johnny Lee on DIY Multitouch with the Wiimote.

Johnny Chung Lee is a graduate student at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s a gifted hacker who realized that you can do a lot more with the Nintendo Wii remote than play games with it. The Wii remote is a cheap, well-engineered widget for accurately tracking up to four infrared light sources. That’s the short technical description, but I love the fact that guys like Johnny Lee can take that description and then say “Hey, I can take this and make a cheap electronic white board.”

Watch the video, and then look at the rest of his stuff on YouTube. The Head Tracking for Desktop VR Displays is particularly impressive.

Meat shooting and Google baiting

If you don’t read the comments here, you may have missed the wonderful thing that Mary Beth did last week. After a brief discussion here about how all knowledge is a web search away once you remember to formulate the question, she went out and researched a topic that had mystified her for many years: the Meat Shoot.

Suppose you see a sign in front of a VFW hall that says “Meat Shoot, March 21st.” Here’s what I want to know: is that effective advertising or not? Is the VFW hall making a fair assumption that anyone who wants to come to a meat shoot already knows what one is? The good news is that it hardly matters anymore, because Mary Beth went and made a Meat Shoot entry in the Wikipedia, thereby making it that much easier for the casual meat shoot passerby to become informed. And just to show how much Google loves Wikipedia, as of this writing (and less than a week after the article was created), Mary Beth’s meat shoot article is in sixth place on the Google search for meat shoot.

Can you feel the Great Brain getting smarter? The synapses at the meat shoot neuron just got a little stronger, and gosh darn it, it makes me proud to be alive.

Sea songs and semantic distance

Here’s another one of those semantic distance stories: how long does it take to formulate the right question when you just know the answer is out there somewhere?

One of the various obscure records* in my house when I was growing up was Songs & Sounds of the Sea. It was a collection of sea chanteys recorded by National Geographic. I’d been looking for it over the years online and never had any luck. Because of its sentimental value, this recording is in the category of things I’d be happy to pay real money for if I could just find someone to sell it to me.

My web searches were thwarted partially because I had misremembered the name of the album as Men, Ships, and the Sea. This is in fact a book by Alan Villiers which we also had in the house when I was growing up. But there is no recording by this name, so I would curse and assume that no one had bothered to index this obscure album. I should have suspected that no recording is so obscure that nobody so much as mentions it once on the web. But then when I searched for individual songs I remembered, I sailed into another kind of semantic fog: there are lots and lots of sea chantey sites and recordings that masked the instance I was looking for.

Misremembered labels, over-rich results field… it made me wonder how many kinds of semantic fog there are. Or rather, what factors contribute to semantic distance?

At any rate, eventually I got lucky and found all the MP3s in the clear on this web page for Radio KRUD: Songs & Sounds of the Sea / Star Wars / Fresh KRUD. Enjoy. It may not be your cup of tea, but I know at least some family members out there who will be happy to rediscover this old friend.

* What do you even call these things anymore? LPs? Vinyl? Half the online population has never seen them.

Funny gene names

Do you suppose, if your house was knocked over by Hurricane Fifi, that you might feel more slighted than if the same damage had been done by a storm with a more muscular name? Generals have long understood the value of giving their military operations intimidating names like Rolling Thunder and Urgent Fury. If you have a rare disease, it can be a source of perverse comfort to know that it is named after a pair of stern and bespectacled Old World doctors like Creutzfeldt and Jakob or Kugelberger and Welander.

But geneticists and molecular biologists have a couple of strikes against them when it comes to naming genes. First of all, they tend to name genes for what happens when the gene doesn’t work, which ends up making a critical functionality sound like a problem. Thus eyeless helps make eyes. The other problem is that it never occurred to them that the silly inside-joke names they gave to their fruitfly genes would have such straightforward parallels in humans. As it says in the NY Times article ‘Sonic Hedgehog’ Sounded Funny, at First:

It’s a cute name when you have stupid flies and you call it a ‘turnip.’ … When it’s linked to development in humans, it’s not so cute any more.

I came across a link to the Times article because of an entertaining blog post from the bioinformaticist Nick Saunders: What’s in a (gene) name? . You never know when a name is going to matter.

Tom Lehrer, lost and found

On the subject of libraries, Boswell quotes Samuel Johnson thus: “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.”

What would Johnson make of the web? I think about this quote whenever I reflect on the fact that, to a fair approximation, all human knowledge is one Google search away. In other words, knowledge is of two kinds: that which we know, and that which we have the good sense to ask Google for. More succinctly, obscurity ain’t what it used to be. Obscurity is not the obscurity of the dusty book lost in the shadowy stacks. Obscurity is the obscurity of your inability to formulate a question in the first place. Once you can do that, there is no question about where to look.


This leads to a surprising conclusion. The more convenient the search, the more valuable the intrinsic knowledge. The distance between forming the question and finding the answer is vanishing. So relatively speaking, packing a lot of information into your head still pays. Take heart… that liberal arts education may pay off yet!

This all came to mind because of Tom Lehrer and my brother-in-law Joe. Joe sent me a link to some YouTube videos of Tom Lehrer performing songs of his that I know far too well. Did I want to see them? Of course I wanted to see them! I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to go looking for them before. Joe’s email nudged them “closer” to me, but really they were the same distance from me all along. Everything I want to know is right there, only I don’t yet know that I want to know it yet.

Enough. Now go watch Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.

Thanks Joe!

Six Degrees Could Melt the World

As long as we’re talking about environmentalism and eco-tainment, I watched some of Six Degrees Could Change the World on the National Geographic Channel tonight (I sure do watch a lot more National Geographic and Discovery programming since I got a high-definition TV). The show is all about the dramatic damage that a few degrees of aggregate global warmth can do. Not surprisingly, it was pretty disturbing stuff, but here’s what really shocked me: one of the sponsors was Hummer!

That’s the same Hummer that is perhaps the most obscenely fat-ass gas guzzler on the (rapidly warming) planet.

I just can’t figure it out… it’s so off-the-wall that it has to be either a bizarre passive-aggressive move of some kind, or else somebody in the marketing department has figured out some crazy-like-a-fox counterintuitive trend. Maybe people who love big cars experience thrilling schadenfreude as they watch maudlin environmentalists wring their hands. Maybe wealthy eco-warriors want to buy up Hummers simply to pull them off the market. Maybe the folks at Hummer realize there’s going to be a market for environmentalists-turned-survivalist who need some horsepower to get to their compound in Montana.

The speculation is fun, but I really am baffled by this. Anybody have any theories out there?

Earthtools and Sky Clock

I added my animations to the explanation page for my Sky Clock and made a few small changes to the clock page. If you want to find your own latitude and longitude, I now link to Simon Willison’s excellent

As I was poking around for a good mapping site to find global coordinates, I came across a fun site called Earthtools is Yet Another Map Mashup, but it adds a lot of value by including such things as contour map overlays, altitude, and my favorite, sunrise and sunset times. Here’s where I work with some fun info piled on top. Last December I got a few questions about when the earliest sunset would be for location X. Now I know just where to find out.

The hazards of misanthropic environmentalism

In a magazine with the unlikely title What Is Enlightenment, I came across an excellent review of the politics of the Green movement in America. The article, A Brighter Shade of Green: Rebooting Environmentalism for the 21st Century by Ross Robertson, touches on some history and the current diversity of opinions among Greens. In the process, it gave some structure to things I’ve been puzzling over. Especially this: if it’s so easy to see that Greens are often right, why are they so damned annoying? The answer is that they hate people.

I’ll take a step back from my oversimplification and clarify. Among certain elements of the Green movement, which Robertson calls the “Dark Greens”, modern man is characterized as a disease. This is the monkey-wrenching Edward Abbey/John Muir axis of the group. It’s a seductive line of reasoning; the sins of mankind stain every corner of the globe. But you don’t have to follow the logic very far to see that the only possible solution consistent with this naturalistic world view is a horrific depopulation and a return to a primitive agrarian lifestyle among the privileged few that remain. It’s a grim prospect, unlikely to inspire anyone but the clear-eyed believers and those rich enough to afford their own guilt. The trouble is, of course, that any movement that marginalizes people must necessarily marginalize itself. Depression does not inspire.

In contrast to these Dark Greens are the so-called Bright Greens. Two exemplars of this view are Bruce Sterling and Stewart Brand. Stewart Brand is one of my heroes. Formerly of Ken Kesey’s Pranksters and the Whole Earth Review, this is a guy who could easily live in a nostalgic hippie daydream. But instead:

…as he gets older, he recently told the New York Times, he continues to become “more rational and less romantic. . . . I keep seeing the harm done by religious romanticism, the terrible conservatism of romanticism, the ingrained pessimism of romanticism. It builds in a certain immunity to the scientific frame of mind.

His investigations have led him to some surprising conclusions relative to typical Green rhetoric. For example: we need bigger cities and more nuclear power.

Regarding Dark Green guilt, I’ll close with an extended quote from Sterling:

It’s a question of tactics. Civil society does not respond at all well to moralistic scolding. There are small minority groups here and there who are perfectly aware that it is immoral to harm the lives of coming generations by massive consumption now: deep Greens, Amish, people practicing voluntary simplicity, Gandhian ashrams and so forth. These public-spirited voluntarists are not the problem. But they’re not the solution either, because most human beings won’t volunteer to live like they do. . . . However, contemporary civil society can be led anywhere that looks attractive, glamorous and seductive. The task at hand is therefore basically an act of social engineering. Society must become Green, and it must be a variety of Green that society will eagerly consume.

This makes abundant sense to me. Any fool can see that we are wrecking the planet, but we need to attack the problem with a positive attitude that has the potential to move millions. Sign me up! I’m ready to go Bright Green.

Read the whole article. It’s long but worthwhile.

Happy Groundhog Day!


Whatever your opinion of curious ceremonies involving certain celebrated shade-bestowing rodents, I nevertheless wish you a happy Groundhog Day. Shadow or not, Spring is just over there and it’s headed this way.