Price-driven costing and

I was captivated by an article in this month’s Wired: The Answer Factory: Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell. It’s a good example of straightforward proposition that makes you wonder why it hadn’t occurred to you before. The big idea is that search engines, effective as they are, only address the desire side of the equation. What if people start asking for content that doesn’t exist? No search engine in the world can find it. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story, because the hard part is now done. If you know what people are unsuccessfully searching for, you not only know what the market wants, but also that no one else is providing it. That’s lovely.

Demand Media feeds the hunger exposed by Big Search.

The article is about Demand Media, a company that uses algorithmic search analysis to research the niche market needs of the day. It then immediately underwrites the rapid (and cheap) production of text or video content so that it can be used for its own ad placement. If you want to make money efficiently, don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch. But when it itches, scratch fast!

I immediately thought of Peter Drucker’s Five Deadly Business Sins, one of which is cost-driven pricing. As Drucker puts it: “The only thing that works is price-driven costing. The only sound way to price is to start out with what the market is willing to pay and design to that price specification.”

The media business these days is full of hand-wringers fretting about the collapse of journalism and the Decline of Western Civilization (by which they mean they aren’t getting paid). The bonfire in the newsroom is genuinely disturbing, but hand-wringing won’t make it stop. There’s something refreshing about how Demand Media smashed right through the problem and onto the next promontory. How much are people willing to pay for their media diet these days? Not much! But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a successful business. Now shut your piehole and get to work.

Decoder Rings for the Net Naif

One of the great things about the Internet is that, while it encourages the creation of fierce micro-cultures built around arcane factoids and bizarre practices, it simultaneously facilitates the cheerful and articulate explanation of the same. Where you might stumble across the phenomenon known as Juggalos (I can’t recommend that you follow that link), you’d learn more by zipping over to the more sober description at Wikipedia. Similarly, would you rather learn about the Church of SubGenius here or here? It is a great comfort to know that if a hipster twenty-something tries to spring some truncated textspeak on me like TL;DR, a quick trip to will set me straight.


My latest find, courtesy of a recent reference to The Juggernaut Bitch!! is KnowYourMeme, a sort of Snopes of the meme world. I was pleased to see a reference there to a neighbor of mine. FU Penguin, written in the town where I live, is a profane tonic to counteract CuteOverload and LOL Cats. It appears on KnowYourMeme as one of many Single Topic Blogs. Cake Wrecks? Owl Tattoos? WTF?

Start your engines and prepare to waste a lot of time.

The Robotic Amoeba

I’m a sucker for the robot videos on BotJunkie, and this soft deformable robot is no exception. It’s fun to see how a blob bot can be made to work, but I’m especially impressed with the video itself. I love the pencil animation at the beginning.

Back in the original desktop publishing revolution, it took people (non-designer people) a while to figure out the basic aesthetics of fonts and page layout. After that, some people who would never have become commercial artists or designers just happened to have a flair for design, and their snazzy documents gave them an advantage in the workplace.

These days something similar is happening with video. The tools to make high quality video are now in people’s hands. Not everybody can take advantage of those tools, but some people are naturals. This video was made by grad students. I’m reminded of the awesome Six Minutes of Terror video made by JPL about the two rovers arrival on Mars. It’s a professional job, for sure, but it’s much slicker than it “needs” to be. My favorite part is the cinema verité shot of the parachuting space probe headed for the surface. We’re looking through a shaky camera being held by a (purely imaginary) guy skydiving next to rover.

Anyway, videos are getting better and better, even when made by grad students. I’m betting that screwing around with the demo reel is a great way to put off actual work on the dissertation.

Home-made UAVs

A UAV is an unmanned aerial vehicle. In the old days, a home-made unmanned aerial vehicle would be called a model airplane, or perhaps an RC (radio-controlled) plane. But the fancy-pants term UAV is well earned these days because of the amazing things amateur enthusiasts can do with them. It’s remarkably close to what much more expensive military UAVs can do.

For example, I read a fascinating article in Make magazine about the GPS-driven autopilot you can put into your kit. Sadly, the article is not online, but the article’s author Chris Anderson (who happens to be editor in chief at Wired magazine), runs a whole web site called DIY Drones. They’ll help you get started, and when you’re ready they’ll sell you an miniature open source inertial navigation unit that costs less than $100. That’s something that couldn’t be had for less than a hundred times that cost only a few years ago. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a device that can go spy on your neighbors. I won’t dwell on the point, but you can easily imagine many more mischievous uses for a cheap easily built spy plane.

If you make them small and nimble enough, you can fly indoors. Here’s a simple blimp that can pilot itself around your building, but the engineers at MIT have made something much niftier: precision-controlled helicopters. This video is especially impressive.

Here’s a Popular Mechanics article from last year about MIT’s indoor flight lab: Crash-Proof UAVs Fly Blind at MIT’s RAVEN Aerospace Controls Lab. I wish I had this stuff back when I was in grad school!

Fundraising for autism research

Every year in October Wendy and I do our best to get you to pay good money to send us around a horse track. The part about the money is serious. It’s hard for you to earn it and we accept it with respect. The horse track, on the other hand, is a MacGuffin. It’s not really the point, but it focuses the action into a story. You pay, we walk. But what about the money? We give it, by way of Autism Speaks, to medical researchers who are trying to turn autism from a voracious family-devouring monster into a historical curiosity.


There are a lot of charities competing for your money. Let me tell you why mine is the most important: my son Jay is autistic, and dealing with autism sucks rocks. That’s the most accurate statement of my situation… I chose this malady because it chose me. This gives me great sympathy for others in my predicament.

I realize that, by itself, my personal connection may not convince you to give, so I ask you to consider this. Autism rates continue their mysterious climb, and now parent-reported rates of autism are greater than one percent (1 in 91). If you don’t already know a child with autism, you will. Unless you can do something to stop it.

You can.

Donate to Autism Speaks by supporting Jay’s Team (

Many of you already have, and I thank you for that. As usual, I conclude this note with Wendy’s annual message.

Continue reading “Fundraising for autism research”

The talking piano

Fourier analysis tells us that you can do a darn good job modeling any periodic waveform by adding together a series of sine waves. The image below was lifted from the Wikipedia article on the Gibbs phenomenon, in which the goal is to assemble a square wave.


On Jim Bumgardner’s KrazyDad blog I came across this talking piano. It’s from a German-language documentary, but the modeled words are in English. What’s going on? In a process similar to Fourier analysis, you can play lots of piano notes that together add up to a pretty good approximation of someone talking. Spoken words have lots of structure, and musical notes are building blocks of acoustic structure. With the help of a computer and many-fingered robotic pianist, you can make a piano talk.

It’s an uncanny sound. I think it’s just begging to appear in a haunted house movie.

Slow eyes and the Great Defrosting

Seeing is believing, but sometimes just seeing is not enough. A snapshot of a sick glacier with a sad caption doesn’t really compel. The hour hand advances and the water slowly rises, but busy people can be forgiven for shrugging and moving on. James Balog is a photographer, in the seeing business as you might say, and he realized that if he couldn’t make glaciers jump into your lap, no one would ever believe. I saw his TED talk on extreme ice loss and came away impressed.

The Extreme Ice Survey is basically the world’s largest time-lapse photography experiment. Only when you put on the slow eyes of time lapse do you see the glaciers staggering and collapsing like expiring dinosaurs. Here’s a video of a shrinking Icelandic glacier.

Also be sure and watch this Greenland glacier calving a massive iceberg.

It took years for scientists in the 1800s to become convinced that glaciers were actually moving rivers of ice. Let’s hope these videos help people understand more quickly what’s happening now.