The iSousaphone

I was digging around for some Sousa marches on Memorial Day and came up with this. It’s my new favorite YouTube video.

It’s a video, transmitted over the internet, of a phonograph playing a 78 RPM recording of a man playing an arrangement for organ of Sousa marches. When I first saw it, it was streaming wirelessly to my iPod in the kitchen, which sort of enhanced the effect. I like the unsteady cinéma vérité nature of the handheld camera work. And the zoom in the middle is almost like when Luke is attacking the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. Whoa! How close are you going to get to that thing?! Throw in some 3-d goggles and you’d be dealing with some serious vertigo.

The whole thing makes a good history lesson. Kids these days just don’t understand. Why in my day, we had to look at betamax videos of phonographs playing 78 RPM recordings of Sousa marches.

How does my iPod know where I am?

For years my wife has wanted to be able to check email from the kitchen downstairs. Seven years ago she convinced me to buy a laptop for this purpose, but it didn’t get used much, partly because of some trouble with the mail client she was using at the time… checking for mail from two different locations is a pain from a non-web client. Since then she converted over to Gmail, which solved that problem. So she wanted to try again with the old computer. We even went to the trouble of refurbishing the old crappy seven year old laptop (she insisted), and oy! what a dog it was! It worked, but everything took so long.

The solution to the problem turned out to be an iPod touch. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s amazing how much better a computer it is than that old laptop. It’s small and handy and also doubles as the source of music in the kitchen.

The iPod touch is essentially a really thin iPhone without the talky part (or the camera, sadly). It can’t make calls, but it can talk to a WiFi network. I knew it had the basic features I wanted, but I was nervous about the virtual keyboard being too much of a nuisance. I am happy to report that it makes an excellent kitchen computer, especially in a kitchen as small as ours. The instant-on startup time is a wonderful thing, compared to even a modern laptop, and the wireless connectivity is terrific. My son Jay is autistic, so I spend a lot of time walking around near him to make sure he’s not getting into trouble. The touch has just the right form factor for carrying unobtrusively while I check email and Twitter, and then slipping into my pocket when Jay needs my attention.

It took me a long time to get with the mobile revolution, but I’m happy with this as an entrée.

One thing I’m still puzzled about. The mapping application, Google Maps, works really well, and if you push the little “tell me where I am” button, it accurately positions you on the map. I knew this feature existed, but I thought it worked because of cell phone tower location technology. But this iPod is not a cell phone. I would have guessed that all it knows is my IP address, and I didn’t think IP addresses could be pinned down to within a hundred yard radius. So… how does my iPod know where I am?

Historic “Blockbuster” Store

This is a fine example of what The Onion does best. The premise is simple and potentially very unfunny: historical re-enactors at a carefully reconstructed “video store” of the future. But the writing and the delivery is just perfect.

Historic “Blockbuster” Store Offers Glimpse Of How Movies Were Rented In The Past

I grew up in a town with a carefully re-created historical village (Old Salem), and Massachusetts, where I live now, is positively lousy with them (Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, and so on). I can never make up my mind if these things are living treasures or pretentious exemplars of a past that never existed, much in the same way that Monsanto’s House of the Future never will exist. I can just picture old Ben Franklin laughing himself silly, his face wet with tears, as he takes a tour of modern day Colonial Williamsburg.

Watching a bad re-enactor perform is painful in the extreme, but even the good ones make me want to knock them off balance with impossibly hard questions. Who is the Crown Governor of the Virginia Colony? How much did you pay for that pewter salt cellar? Who are you kidding with that ridiculous accent? And if I ever visited the Historical Blockbuster Shoppe, I would ask to rent videos that wouldn’t have been released yet. That would show them! Ha ha!

(Thanks for the Onion link Matthew!)

Brain loading and stellar chauvinism

When I meet impressive people, I always wonder how they spend their time. Let’s suppose you meet someone who can play effortless bluegrass on the banjo, quote Shakespeare at length, write luminous heartbreaking prose, and throw together an award-winning web site with their right hand while simultaneously juggling five flaming tomahawks with their left. Not bad, right? But those skills are all frozen snapshots. Those are recorded performances, and you’re just pressing the “play” button. What I want to know is: how did they get there? How in world did they load up their brain bins like that? How do they carve up the same twenty four hours that I get every day and manage to do so much with it?

I suspect, but I’m not sure, that they didn’t watch as many episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies as I did in Junior High.

When someone writes a fabulous book, or even an eloquent blog for that matter, I don’t feel like I get much insight into the crucial question of how they got there. It’s a performance. How many rehearsals did it take? But when somebody impressive twitters (there he goes about Twitter again), I feel more like I’m inside the secret process of how they load their brain. Tim O’Reilly, whom I rank in the “impressive” category, was twittering away this afternoon, and it was like peeking over his shoulder while he packed his brain for another good sprint.

One of the things that O’Reilly mentioned today was Celestia, an astronomy program. I’m a sucker for astronomy programs, especially free high-quality astronomy programs. So off I went to download it and install it. For improving the experience of stargazing, I would give the edge to Stellarium. For access to the best astrophotography, you’ll want to use Google Earth’s doppelganger, Google Sky. But Celestia has another trick. Here’s how they describe it: “Unlike most planetarium software, Celestia doesn’t confine you to the surface of the Earth. You can travel throughout the solar system, to any of over 100,000 stars, or even beyond the galaxy.” It is a fun game to play.

Naturally, I flew to the most distant star I could find (HIP 88879) and looked back at our little star, and this is what I saw. What are all those blue squiggles radiating from the Sun? Those are the constellations, those curious cartoons of assorted animals and people that inhabit our sky. We’re used to seeing them flattened against the inside of the dome of heaven. But there’s no dome, right? Those zodiacal doodles connect stars that differ wildly in their remoteness, anywhere from tens to thousands of light years.

It’s very thoughtful of them to put on an animal show for us every night.

Twitter is the complement of video conferencing

It’s fairly commonplace these days for people to write an “I’m Falling for Twitter and Here’s Why” piece. For instance, here is North Carolina journalist Ginny Skalski doing an impassioned video blog post for everyone who doesn’t understand Twitter. Twitter is becoming more and more mainstream (read: boring) every day. The true early adopters have long since moved on to newer and more interesting stuff. Nevertheless, I’m Falling for Twitter and Here’s Why.

Twitter is the complement of video conferencing.

Have you ever been in a video conference? They suck. They suck because in a video conference, your job is to stay on topic. Video conferencing is Important and Expensive. You have to make Big Talk, not small talk. Of course, you can make small talk, but it’s hard. The medium works against you. And since small talk is what lubricates Big Talk, video conferences end up feeling stilted and sterile.

But on Twitter, the main thing is not Big Talk, but What You’re Doing Right Now. Which is often pretty dreary stuff. Thus the obvious, and to be fair, quite reasonable, criticism of Twitter is that it is vanity broadcasting at its most asinine. Why should I care that you re-organized your sock drawer this weekend? And do you really want to know what I found when vacuumed under the sofa?


Except that if I meet you tomorrow, it is in fact extremely valuable to know that, after much deliberation, you ultimately decided to put the athletic socks on the left and the dark socks on the right. Because I need to start a conversation with you about something Big, and there is no better place to start than with something small.

Twitter is for all the crumbs that fall off the video conferencing table. Video conferencing is about intentionality, and Twitter is about serendipity.

Serendipity is a lot more fun. And in the long run it’s a lot more valuable.

So what did you do this weekend? I want to know.

Gasoline, the new moonshine

During the Prohibition of the 1920s and 1930s, moonshine stills in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina supplied illegal alcohol to a great many thirsty Americans. But getting the booze to market wasn’t easy: drivers had to outrun and evade police along poorly-maintained mountain roads. Many of these drivers, the so-called “ridge runners”, became the first generation of stock car racers.

Now, I learn from Rob Carlson’s synthesis blog, you can run your own (legal) still. Only this time the booze is for the car itself. As this article in the New York Times reports, the EFuel100 MicroFueler is homebrew at its finest. Even if it doesn’t make much economic sense to buy one, it’s a hell of a conversation piece. And I don’t suppose they can really prevent you from making some killer Jungle Juice for your next kegger.

Now I’m on the lookout for a Pilsener Prius (or maybe a Bud Bug?), bearing this bumper sticker: “This Car Fueled by the Choicest Hops, Rice, and Best Barley Malt”

Kicking away the ladder: man’s fate and the Great Filter

How long have we got? Depending on who you ask, we’re roughly halfway through the time of tolerable tenure for life on Earth. The planet has been around for 4.6 billion years, give or take, and it’s got about that much more time before the swelling Sun boils our bathwater.

See the Universe Timeline for more numbers

Relatively speaking, it didn’t take very long for life to appear once the Earth had cooled down enough to support plenty of water. But notice that it took a surprisingly long time, something like 2.5 billion years (as indicated by the red bracket), before the first eukaryotic organisms came along. That’s a sizable fraction of the entire lifespan of the planet! Something extraordinary and improbable must have happened, something very lucky for us, since those little bugs were our ancestors. One way to put this in perspective is to say that, if life suddenly vanished from Earth right now, it’s reasonable to assume there would be enough time for it to develop again before the Earth was sterilized by the Sun. But it is much less likely that there would be enough time to get from simple bacteria to eukaryotic life again. On the plus side, if we simply kill off all the people, or even most of the vertebrates, there should be plenty of time to regroup and try a few more times and making something intelligent.

The latest issue of Technology Review magazine has a provocative essay by Nick Bostrom along these lines. Entitled Where Are They?, it touches on Fermi’s paradox regarding extraterrestrial life. Namely: if life in the universe is commonplace, then why aren’t we seeing any evidence of it? His conclusion is that some catastrophic event, call it the Great Filter, is blocking life on other planets from reaching the point where it can contact us. If you follow his reasoning this far, then you have to ask if the Great Filter is behind us or after us. Was, for example, the rise of eukaryotic complexity so singular, that we are the only planet in the entire galaxy to pull it off? On the other hand, what if the Great Filter is ahead of us? We, and every other planet like us, may well destroy ourselves with near certainty, either through suicidal violence or self-poisoning waste. Fossil fuel has given us wealth and a means of ascent into orbit, but we may well squander it and kick away the ladder.

It’s hard to argue with Bostrom’s reasoning. One thing that’s still not very clear to me: how likely is it that Earth-like civilizations in our galaxy would be able to hear our “leaking” radio frequency transmission? That is, not the messages we send intentionally, but just the noise we generate on a typical day. This seems to bear directly on this problem. Not much time has passed for other civilizations to hear us, but if they could hear us, then shouldn’t we be able to hear them? If we should be able to hear other civilizations as advanced as our own, but instead hear nothing, that seems pretty clear evidence that the Great Filter is behind us and not ahead of us. At any rate, I recommend you read the whole piece, if only to follow his rationale for the following comment:

If [on Mars] we discovered traces of some simple, extinct life-form–some bacteria, some algae–it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something that looked like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life-form we found, the more depressing the news would be. I would find it interesting, certainly–but a bad omen for the future of the human race.

By the way, Tim O’Reilly has a good piece about this same topic over at the O’Reilly Radar blog: Fermi’s Paradox and the End of Cheap Oil.