Robot emotions

I regularly read the robot-oriented BotJunkie blog. Evan Ackerman, the Bot-Junkie-in-Chief, covers everything from military flying robots to frivolous toy robots. There’s a lot of research these days into robots that show emotion, and I was struck by the difference in approaches used by different teams. Here is the creepy and uncanny Albert Einstein emoting robot.


Follow the link to watch the video, but it’s not very impressive. Getting the face just right turns out to be a difficult path to convincing emotion. But now watch what little Keepon can do with a yellow-blob body, cartoony eyes and nose, and some serious dance move mojo.

Who would you want to have over for dinner, creepy Al, or squeezeable Keepon? Everybody loves Keepon.

The same idea of emotional behavior is behind this robot that can’t figure out how to plug itself in. It needs help from a passing human, and it knows it. Don’t try to look human. Just act cute: by begging, it gets the response it needs. Here’s the concept video.

Maybe there’s a reason that the word emotion is mostly motion.

Dan’s iPhone Astronomy

Here’s the setup for a joke: once there was a mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer, and… Oh, wait, that’s not the setup for a joke. That’s a description of my house in grad school. Okay, it was actually a trailer, not a house, but that’s not important. For the purposes of today’s story, what you need to know is that I was the engineer in the trio, and Dan was the physicist. Dan is now on the faculty at Weber State in Ogden, Utah. He has a blog that I enjoy reading, and as an iPhone owner I was especially pleased to come across his very thorough review of iPhone star charting applications.

I always liked looking over Dan’s shoulder when he was evaluating products he was considering buying (camera lenses, star charts, baking supplies), because Dan is the most thorough evaluator I know. Go look at his star chart reviews and you’ll see what I mean. He’s a one-man Consumer Reports! Read what he has to say and buy one of the recommended apps. It’s a good thing to know the stars in your neighborhood.

Thanks Dan!

Celebrity diagnosis bingo

Misery loves company. Famous misery brings legions. Whenever somebody famous gets a disease, awareness about that disease spikes dramatically. For instance, can you match these famous people (list 1) with their famous maladies (list 2)?

  1. Lance Armstrong
  2. Michael Jackson
  3. Michael J. Fox

  1. Parkinson’s disease
  2. Testicular cancer
  3. Plastic surgery addiction, cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs certifiably insane

Famous illnesses generate action as well as awareness. When they scraped skin cancer off Ronald Reagan’s nose (basal cell carcinoma!), everybody hurried off to the doctor to get in on the nose-scraping action. The same thing happened with Jimmy Carter’s hemorrhoids. Well not exactly the same thing, but… you know.

Given this situation, two physicians launched a site to turn famous illnesses into teachable moments: Here you can learn not only that Walter Cronkite died of vascular disease of the brain. You also get a run-down on stroke symptoms to watch out for. Beyond this we learn that Gidget, the Taco Bell chihuahua, suffered the same fate (she was last seen talking out of only one side of her mouth).

It’s a clever idea, and a good way for doctors to get the last word over diagnosis-bungling journalists. [Seen at Bio-IT World]

Astronaut Photography

With the 40th anniversary of the faked landing on the moon, the exploits of our ancient space mariners are much in the public eye. As it simultaneously fades into the past and the future, the lunar landing becomes ever more unimaginable and mythic in the public imagination. Just as Erich von Däniken once speculated that ancient Egyptians couldn’t possibly have been clever enough to build their own pyramids without extraterrestrial help, it won’t be long before no one believes that the tiny humans who lived in the 1960s (The Kingston Trio! Perry Como!) could possibly have gone to the moon. I even wrote a short script for future TV show based on this premise: Mysteries of the Ancients.

Anyway, when it comes to NASA videos, I always look for the most unedited stuff I can get my hands on. This, for my money, is the best video of the landing: one shot, out-the-window, from 40,000 feet to touchdown.

And since we should remember the new guys who are up there even now, I recommend this Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. The shots are all pretty amazing, but don’t miss the Weekly Top 10. Look, for example, at this god’s-eye view of a giant thunderstorm. It might be a little overwhelming seeing that endless spectacle out the window hour after hour. That’s the real reason we only send scientists, pilots, and engineers into space. Put a poet up there and their head would come off.

Dispatches from the front lines of air travel

Allow me to encourage you never to fly Air France. I should be on my way to Paris right now, but after a five hour delay, they cancelled my flight. It was a beautiful roller-coaster ride of almost scripted drama: The plane has a broken part. They found a spare replacement part! It’s not in Boston. It just arrived from Minneapolis! They’re not authorized to install it. The authorities in Paris approved the installation! We have to re-file our flight plan. We’re ten minutes away from take-off! They were working on last minute paperwork. We were so close. It was the nearest run thing you ever saw. But then… the crew exceeded their time-on-duty limits and BOOM! it’s everybody out of the pool.

Cancelling an international flight is not as simple as you might think. The alimentary canal at departure time is designed to push things onto the plane, not off of it. We had already been cleared through customs, and since we were the last flight of the day, there was no “arrival” staff in place to receive us. Reverse peristalsis is never pretty.

After picking up luggage, we had to suffer the indignity of another long snaking queue to reconstruct our shattered flight plans. After another hour of moving nowhere and getting no information, I pulled the plug and went home.

I draw from this experience two and a half valuable lessons which, generously, I now will share.

Lesson 1. Don’t fly on Air France.
Lesson 2. Don’t fly on Air France on Bastille Day (see also Lesson 1).

I realize these two lessons overlap somewhat, but at this moment I feel the point is worth emphasizing. Also, my editor is after me to boost my content. As for the remaining half lesson, don’t use the iPhone version of WordPress. I wrote the first version of this on an iPhone and then lost it when I tried to post. That sort of day, I suppose.

Here endeth the whining. Over and out from Logan International Airport.

Do you know where your HAL.DLL is?

Okay, I’m going to talk about something boring, because it’s distressing me and there’s a small possibility that the clever, good-looking sort of person that reads my blog might be able to help. I will try to make the story interesting, but you and I both know that what I’m really doing is BEGGING FOR FREE TECHNICAL SUPPORT.

The story starts with some educational software for my son. He got a special DynaVox computer for use at home (it was a loaner; we’ve since returned it). I installed some software on my computer (OS = Windows XP Professional) to help move files to the DynaVox. I should say I TRIED to install some software. The installer ran and ran, but then it stopped doing anything obvious. I now believe that installer was squatting on my hard drive and taking a massive poop, but I can’t prove that. Anyway, my machine was locked up, and after I rebooted I met a black screen emblazoned with this cheery message:

Windows could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt: C:WINDOWSSYSTEM32HAL.DLL.
Please re-install a copy of the above file.

Gosh! Thanks for the tip, helpful Windows boot program! But how do I do that?

After making unhappy noises, I used my wife’s computer to find a very helpful page at Their advice was cogent, concise, and effective. But it only works once, and then I’m back to square one. I’m able to boot successfully off my Windows CD-ROM, but every single time I reboot my PC, it goes all wobbly in the knees, mutters something about the DynaVox, and forgets its HAL.DLL all over again. It also forgets its BOOT.INI file, even when I create one and put it in the right place. I can boot my machine consistently; it just takes five minutes worth of fiddling. I put on 80s music and try to pretend I have moved back to a time when giant slow-moving computers roamed the earth.

To sum up, it appears that something between the Windows down-shutting and the Windows up-starting actively removes my HAL.DLL and BOOT.INI files. They are being sucked into a malevolent, dark vortex. Is there an incantation or small sacrificial animal that can help me?

And now my story is done. As expected, the telling was therapeutic, even if nothing comes of it. Good evening.

SPECIAL NOTE: Mac users, please do not taunt the bitter Windows user. He is grumpy and may bite.

ALSO: Yes, I ran diagnostics on my hard drive to make sure it wasn’t stupid.

UPDATE: The problem is solved at last. Many thanks to everyone who offered a kind and helpful word, and especially to my friend Zain who figured out the right Google incantation: boot.ini disappears reboot deshil holles eamus! My apologies to the good people at DynaVox. They still have a crappy installer, but it appears the blame for my vanishing BOOT.INI file must go to the Ask Toolbar which I installed that same weekend. I removed it last night, and my troubles are at an end. I feel certain that my life will go perfectly from this day forward.