Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

If you haven’t seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog yet, I highly recommend it. It’s Joss Whedon’s 42 minute web opera, a marvel of tight scripting, strong acting, and some real toe-tapping musical numbers. Whedon’s description of how it came about is worth a read too. Essentially, it grew out of the free time provided by the writer’s strike. As Whedon puts it:

“Frustrated with the lack of movement on that front, I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few.”

It’s an old story, but it feels like a new genre. And whether or not you think there’s anything truly novel about it, it’s still darned entertaining. Courtesy of Hulu and a few ads, here it is:

http://www.hulu.com/embed/Z4kt7M5Uta51JuIDJV6HeQ/0/330

Incidentally, this is an example of something good that I learned about only because people were talking about it on Twitter. I find I’m picking up all kinds of stuff that way these days.

Mind games at Sporcle and the future of education

A recent post by Friend of the Star Chamber Mike Onken over at the Industry! blog reminded me what a terrific resource Sporcle is. I’ve written about their excellent Name the Presidents game here before, but they’re on a roll now. They’ve got some kind of solid infrastructure that lets them churn out games lickety-split.

Their games do a good job of removing all the hassle from lightly-aided recall trivia games. The challenge is much greater than you’d get with multiple choice, but it’s also much more satisfying. Just type as fast as you can in one place and good things happen. I love these things. It’s an ideal way to learn your way around the countries of Africa, the names of various Greek gods, and as Mike discovered, the elements of the periodic table. Poke around the list of games and you’ll find, in addition to the things you’d like to know, some things that you already know disturbingly well. You might be alarmed, for example, at how many Simpson’s characters you can name. When you memorize the fact that Moe’s last name is Szylak, can it cause you to forget the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou?

I would go so far as to say that this is where education is headed: autodidactic social competitions. Strong on the social, light on the competition, and largely self-guided. Everybody likes to know how they’re doing compared to everyone else. I’m sure this site is driving a lot of serious learning.

UPDATE: How can I neglect to mention the Sporcle challenge to name all of the cheeses in the Monty Python cheese shop skit? That’s a lot of cheese. No no. Don’t tell me. I’m keen to guess…

Defender in 16 by 16 pixels

Minimalism is big. We’ve got 5k chess (an entire game of chess written is less than 5 kilobytes of JavaScript). We’ve got Lego versions of the Old Testament. We’ve got presidents with tiny cardboard facsimiles of a real brain. But here’s one that really blew me away: a tiny version of the old arcade game Defender. And when I say tiny, I mean crazy tiny like building a house on the head of a pin tiny. This is Defender in the space of a 16 by 16 pixel icon. That in itself is impressive, but this guy gets extra credit for making a playable game of Defender run in the favicon space for the browser.

Favicon Defender.

Print your shoes

In the future, we will print everything.

We will print toasters. We will print golf carts. We will print small children.

But for now, we are printing toys and shoes. Fast Company magazine has a good story this month on (among other high tech sports gear) Nike’s fancy “Flywire” shoes for the Olympics. They’ve been able to innovate rapidly by basing their super lightweight shoe design on… bridges. Here’s the story.

The inspiration for the new construction came from the cables on a suspension bridge. Rather than cords of steel, Flywire uses thin, strong-as-steel threads of Vectran, placed in fan-shaped clusters of between 10 and 20 strands, each about 3 inches in length. […] Flywire lead designer Jay Meschter’s stroke of genius was to stop thinking of a shoe as something assembled and start thinking of it as something that is, well, printed. When Meschter connected the two ideas of filaments and strength, his mind leaped to embroidery machines, which, he realized, print out lines and shapes using colored thread stitches rather than ink. If Meschter could stitch in 3-D form the cabling that holds up a suspension bridge, and anchor the ultrathin “cables” around a foot shape, he’d be able to create an ultralight shoe in the same time it took to stitch somebody’s name on a shirt.

Printing shoes has two virtues: it’s cheap and it’s fast. A fast, cheap product design cycle means that innovation can happen extremely fast, and the fruits of innovation can be passed on to the consumer rapidly. I find this story exciting not because I want to go buy some Flywire shoes but because this is one part of an accelerating trend. Printing makes design happen faster, and when design happens faster things get better.

Pandora Radio on the iPod touch

A few weeks ago I wrote about how my iPod touch serves the purpose of a laptop in the kitchen. With the advent of the new iPhone 2.0, I was able to upgrade my iPod software (for $10) and get some of the new iPhone Apps. Among the apps are two that I suspect I’ll use a lot: Pandora and Last.fm.

I’ve been hearing good things about the Sonos system, but that seemed like overkill for my needs. I just want to listen to nice music when I’m in the kitchen. Sonos lets you pick any music you have on your computer and listen to it anywhere in the house. But here’s the problem: I can’t be bothered to pick out music, even the music that I own. I get lazy and listen to the same few things over and over. I actually prefer the way Pandora and Last.fm present my musical options. Just pick an artist or a genre and press “go”. That’s about my speed.

This is what convergence looks like for me. I’m happy getting my music streamed to me through my wifi-enabled iPod using these two services. The iPod sits in a little speaker mount next to a big Bose radio/CD player that I never use anymore.

Inverted ant hills

If you think of a hole as positive space instead of negative space, then you can think of digging a hole as something like sculpting. Pour metal into the hole and you’ll get a sculpture that corresponds to the empty space.

This is worth considering because there is a guy, an entomologist named Dr. Walter Tschinkel, who pours aluminum into ant hills and digs up the resulting forms. As it happens, these castings are beautiful sculptural things. How do those ants, one by one, silently, in the dark, work it all out?

Here is a CBS News story on the subject: The Secret World Of Ants.

(Seen on Ben Fry’s blog)

Gas prices here and there

Gas prices are tough all over. For years, Europeans have lectured us about our profligate ways with petroleum. We deserved the lecture, no doubt about it, but even so I’ve always felt that judgmental Europeans have portrayed themselves as virtuous and far-sighted when in fact they were simply responding as anyone would when faced with a much higher price. It was economics and not virtue that pushed them onto the moral high ground. Or rather, high enough prices make virtuous environmentalists of us all.

Here’s an LA Times article on the price of gas everywhere else in the world: Gasoline prices hit harder outside the US. As you might expect, the places that have significantly cheaper gasoline tend to be petroleum exporters. In Venezuela, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, gas still costs less than a dollar a gallon. But for the most part, we still have it pretty easy compared to everybody else.

The moral of the story is: don’t whine, it’s much worse elsewhere. That’s fair enough, but there’s an interesting fact hidden in the list of prices: the most expensive place to buy gas in the entire world (according to their list) is Norway. But Norway is an oil exporter. Russia, Norway, Mexico, and Kazakhstan are the world’s largest non-OPEC net oil exporters (data from 2004). This tidbit forced me to update my thinking regarding smug Europeans. I might still begrudge a lecturing Frenchman, but the Norwegians have earned the right to take us to school. They have the oil, and they still tax themselves into the stratosphere.

Well done Oslo! By the way, would you be interested in a slightly used Humvee?