Any port in a storm: Prius powers house

My family was up visiting my wife’s uncle in Maine this weekend. He told us some harrowing stories: for the better part of a week, his house in York was without power after the recent ice storm (the lights were on in time for our visit, mercifully). A few hours without power can be a charming, boardgame ‘n’ candles filled trip into the nineteenth century, something like a flying visit to the local historically themed attraction. But more than a day without electricity in Maine in the winter is a serious hardship. Most of us have become quite used to the twenty-first century by now.

It quickly became impossible to buy an electrical generator at any price. But Wendy’s Uncle Pete was lucky enough to have a little generator for his old boat from his sailing days. He was able to wire it into the house and keep minimal services online (fridge, furnace, aluminum smelter). Because I still had Pete’s story in my ears, I was particularly interested in the following item from the NY Times Green Inc. blog: Prius: It’s Not Just a Car, It’s an Emergency Generator. It’s the story of a guy who wired his hybrid car into his house. It’s a portent of the coming decentralized grid. Get ready!

House powers car, that’s not a story. But car powers house, now THAT’S a story.

Rainforest diversity

In the beasts of the tropical rainforest we see a riot of color and shape like no other place on earth. This lovely poster calls attention to some of the remarkable species found in the modern rainforest.


Here we see arrayed everything from the small and reclusive Franklin 3600 to the swaggering John Deere Feller/Buncher (shown here in a florid courtship display). The enormous blue “Ripper” Caterpillar may have savage-looking mouth parts, but we should remember that this gentle giant is a vegetarian.

Sadly, biologists are now concerned that time may be growing short for these lovely lumbering beasts. Habitat destruction is shrinking their wild ranges, although there is some evidence that, when the last tree is plucked, they may be able to switch their diet to houses.

(I saw this on a fun blog that I just came across called Inspire me, now!)

A day in the life of FedEx

All roads lead to Rome, but all skyways lead to Memphis. Watch this video and you’ll see what I mean. I defy you not to think of ants crawling into an ant hill.

You’re watching 25 hours worth of FedEx flights, and there’s no better way to understand the hub-and-spoke nature of the business. Everything they ship (almost everything) gets routed through Memphis, regardless of its ultimate destination. As you watch this counterintuitive stroke of logistical legerdemain, remember that FedEx founder Fred Smith is the guy who invented the whole hub-and-spoke idea. It’s the same idea that was adopted by every airline and ultimately sent you through Minneapolis on your way from Schenectady to St. Louis. Fortunately, overnight packages don’t mind the layover in Memphis.

If you liked this video, watch the visualization of flight deviations around a Memphis thunderstorm.

Labels and authenticity: How true is a true name?

Have you ever been walking on Wall Street and realized you were walking on Wall Street?

When I was in college, I spent a few touristic days in Bruges, Belgium. While strolling along the old cobblestones one night, I suddenly realized that the street name “Langestraat,” which sounded so exotic to my American ears, simply meant Long Street. The idea hit me with great force. I stopped walking and looked it up and down. Long Street. Everything about that town was so ancient and lovely, dripping with medieval ornament like some Flemish Disneyland. But this street name was a fraud… why there was nothing to it. The street was long so they called it Long Street. The church was old, so they called it Old Church. Plain old names! I had paid good tourist money for my exotic artifice, and here it was evaporating before my eyes.

We want from names two things: meaning and magic. The first is a consequence and the second is a sound, but it’s easy to forget how tangled together these two things are. This entanglement puts me in mind of Häagen-Dazs, the ice cream brand with the fanciful and fabricated name. To their credit, they tell you right on their web site that company founder Reuben Mattus “called his new brand Häagen-Dazs, to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship.” It doesn’t mean anything. Or rather, it means what it sounds. And it has an unbreakable code: you’ll never find out that it means old cheese in Dutch, or that Messrs. Häagen and Dazs were Nazi collaborators. The name is a pure confection. But stack it up next next to a utilitarian name like Langestraat and it doesn’t fare well. The beauty of Langestraat, as I came to appreciate, is in its tough old bones, whereas Häagen-Dazs simply melts away.

One of my favorite blogs, Strange Maps, has a post on the Atlas of True Names. Some researchers in Germany have put together an atlas that dwells on the “deep etymology” of place names. Dublin becomes Blackpool, London becomes Hillfort, and so on. Even if some of the etymology is dubious, as is so often the case, it’s good fun. Back in North America, I have often wondered why we kept the transliterations of Indian place names but translated the names of many Native Americans. So we say Mississippi, not “Great River”, but we say Sitting Bull, not Ta-Tanka I-Yotank. Which version has more magic?

One final note before closing: from Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot, I learned about Anglish, the imagined modern language that might be spoken in England had William the Conqueror been merely William the Unsuccessful. Pluck out the Greek and Latin and you end up with a more “self-evident” language, or so goes the theory. Writer Poul Anderson even wrote a treatise on atomic theory in Anglish which he called Uncleftish Beholding. Unclefts are small motes that no knife can cut. Get it?

MontyPython’s YouTube Channel

Look, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, I really am, but Monty Python now has their own YouTube channel. You may commence wasting time now. As they say in their intro video, “For three years, you YouTubers have been ripping us off…” But now, they’ve decided to put authorized high quality videos directly on YouTube. Their motivation is an increasingly common one in this age: they might as well make some money selling trinkets and t-shirts around the edges of their work rather that be bitter and make no money at all.

At this moment only 31 videos have been posted, but some of them are truly from the Greatest Hits collection: Silly Walks, Biggus Dickus from Life of Brian, and the Witch Village from Holy Grail. I imagine, or at least I hope, the plan is to add steadily to this collection.

There are also a few pieces like Eric Idle on what a pain it is to write with John Cleese.

But the one I’ll leave you with is the The Four Yorkshiremen.

We were evicted from our hole in the ground.

Earliest sunset 2008

Where I live, yesterday marked the earliest sunset. From now until summer, you’ll get more afternoon for your money. It’s cold and dark in New England. I always resent the sunlight when it goes vacationing in the southern hemisphere, but I am always happy to welcome it back. Nice Sun… make yourself comfortable. Shall I get you a towel and lounge chair?

I have come to think of this, along with Groundhog Day, as one of my favorite faux-holidays. It needs a name, though. Peak Dusk? Dark High Water Mark? Twilight of the Twilights? The Turn? I like the fact that it appears on different days in different places. If you lived in San Diego, you’d be celebrating on December 3rd.

Anyway, I was able to find a nifty iPhone application to feed my obsession with the sun’s progress: the Vela Design Group’s VelaClock. It provides a lot of information on the rising and setting of the sun and moon (including azimuth), and, charmingly, it works off your exact location based on the GPS unit.

Learning from YouTube: literacy & videracy

A friend of mine at work has a teen aged son who is musically gifted. He likes to play the piano, but he can’t read music. His preferred way of learning a new piece is to watch somebody else play it and copy what they do. You might think this is limiting, but you’re forgetting about YouTube. Name a tune, and you can find a video that will show you exactly how to play it. Just take the name of the song, append “piano lesson,” enter it into the YouTube search box, and off you go. Let’s pick Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

So: somewhere over the rainbow piano lesson

The results turn up some easy-peasy lessons and some that are quite advanced. Look at this one.

Here’s the thing. There’s a bottomless supply of friendly people who want to teach you, for free, how to do anything. You just hadn’t realize it yet.

Here’s another example. I like to fold origami paper models, so I was pleased to find a site with videos: PEM | Origami. Ordinarily you learn to fold origami by reading instructional books. But explaining how to make three dimensional models from flat sheets of paper is complicated. You have to learn a new paper-folding diagrammatic language just to follow the book. This extra learning overshoots the need. Watching someone fold, on the other hand, is a natural way to learn. Try it! From this point of view, the book-based approach requires excess mental effort that can now be freed up for something else.

ReadWriteWeb has a good piece on this topic: Is YouTube the Next Google?. It tells the story of a boy who “never Googled anything; he never went to any other site; his entire web experience was confined to YouTube videos.” There’s more of that to come.

This trend is a marvelous gift for all the clever dyslexics out there, people who have been at a severe disadvantage since the dawn of widespread literacy. The cheap resource used to be text. Hiring personal tutors for miscellaneous instruction was prohibitively expensive. But what if the cheap resource, relatively speaking, becomes video? We may see a new class of disability: dysvidia, or the inability to learn from video demonstration. “What’s wrong with little Randy? He just won’t watch enough TV!

Software that pays attention

We’re used to software that you push around with your mouse and tap-tap-typing fingers. With mobile devices, the long-awaited revolution of new input modes has finally arrived. Now that it’s finally happening, it’s hard to believe how fast it’s happening. For instance, with Shazam you can ask your iPhone to tell you the name of the song on the radio. It listens and dutifully tells you the answer. I’ve tried it, and I’m here to tell you it works and it works well.

With GPS technology, it’s no longer surprising to have a device that can tell you where you are. But that’s just the starting point. Wikitude is an app for your Android-based phone that lets you take a picture of your vicinity which it then annotates with information about what you’re looking at. “What place is that?” you might ask, taking a quick snapshot of a mysterious building with your phone. Just as quickly your pocket amanuensis would reply: “That, dear sir, is the Mitchell Corn Palace, the only one of its kind.” Here’s a video of how it works.

And just last night I was looking at a dramatic apparition of Venus, Jupiter, and the moon in the western sky. Suppose you didn’t know it was Jupiter and Venus. The Celestron SkyScout (which has actually been around for a while) can tell you.

Here’s what I want now. I want to take a picture of a leaf and ask “what tree is this from?” It knows where I am, so it should be able to narrow down the possibilities to one or two species pretty quickly. Or maybe we have to wait for the pocket DNA analyzer. I’m guessing that will be on the market in three months at the rate things are going.

(Thanks Roy for the Wikitude link)