Blobby-handed robots

Early experiments with flying were vexed by the notion that proper wings ought to flap. After all, birds flap their wings, so flying men should have flappy wings. Right? It stands to reason. But then again, we can put a man on the moon and still, to this day, nobody goes flying in a flappy plane. It’s hard to fight the biomimetic urge. I’m guessing the first wheel was delayed by a few thousand years because the prehistoric Thomas Edisons of the world assumed the first technological conveyance should have legs.

How strange that nature should have arrived at inventions that are so wildly impractical from our point of view. The thing that really freed humans as inventors was letting go of the natural precedents. But the temptation is still strong, particularly in the realm of robots. You want something that covers ground? Give it legs. You want to make something that picks stuff up, make hands, of course. And if you’re Japanese, build a humanoid form and teach it to dance.

This week Mike Onken sent me note about a non-anthropomorphic gripper based on “jamming.” You can grab complex objects with confidence and ease using a rubber balloon stuffed with little pellets. First you mash the balloon onto the object. Then, when you’re ready to pick it up, jam more stuff into the balloon and it stiffens into a rigor mortis-like grip.

It works really well for such a simple idea. Here’s a video that appeared on BotJunkie.

As Mike said, this is another example of “just ’cause nature does it that way doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it.” The desire to create a mechanical man in our image is perversely strong. Perhaps God had the same problem. He could have made something so much more practical, but he just had to make us look like him.

Wayward comma toggles Haggard’s exes’ sexes

Hey, while we’re on the subject of persnickety language (see the previous post), here’s another good one from the Language Log. The topic is that mischievous creature, the so-called Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. Which comma is that? It’s the second comma in this phrase: Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe. Should it be there, or should it instead be pitched into a dark hole never to be seen again? Without getting into the question of whether or not God smiles on the serial comma (She does), watch what can happen when the spawn of Oxford goes missing.

The first example is this possibly invented but nevertheless funny inscription: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” This is clearly wrong, if only because there can be no distinction between the two.

More verifiable is this beauty from an article about Merle Haggard: “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

Now that’s what I call fun with punctuation!

It got me thinking about the most mischief that can be caused by the least ink. Just how much can you subvert a serious phrase with a misplaced jot? Here’s my favorite. With the help of a wandering apostrophe, Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama that removed Manuel Noriega from power, becomes Operation Just ‘Cause. Can you do better?

The relationship between excellence and joy is subtle

Debbie, a friend of mine from college, is an excellent singer. But the standards in her musical family were high. She told the story of how her uncle, a virtuoso clarinetist, would listen to her singing as they were driving and say “Debbie, you’re modulating!” She wasn’t rehearsing. She wasn’t training her voice. She was in the car, in transit between Points A and B, making a joyful noise. And old Uncle Perfect Pitch just had to poop on her singing. Silence was his reward, may it serve him well.

Does pedantry stem from a desire for excellence or a salve for insecurity? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but in general it’s the worst kind of tedium. In my opinion, rule-following en route to joy is altogether worthy. Rule-following en route to a job is often necessary. But rule-following to satisfy pedants is a misery. Sometimes joy is remote from us, but too often those who have lost all joy compensate by hardening their grip on rules. Any stick will do when you need to beat someone for your sins.

From the Language Log I found this lovely animated monologue. The animator is Matt Rogers, and the speaker is British comedian Stephen Fry. Here’s a slice of Fry for you on the subject of pedants.

They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs… But do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language?

Now give the whole thing a listen and try to forget that it sounds an awful lot like John Cleese.

Projecting videos of buildings onto buildings

So here’s yet another tie-in to the Creative Internet link I had up last week (the world is full of interesting things), but this time it has a family connection. First of all, my nephew Ben noted in the comments that he is sort of friends with Adam WarRock, the guy who wrote the theme to the Star Wars Uncut project I linked to.

Now Ben’s sister Sarah (follow this carefully) is back from Lebanon, where she had many excellent adventures. And since she’s been back, she’s had lots of time to surf the web and flag cool articles on Google Reader. Which is great news for me, because when it comes to the web, she has a fine and well-traveled palate for the odd, the curious, and the morbid. You should follow her on Google Buzz to get her recommendations. One of her recent links was to a video of a famous clock in Prague serving as the screen for a video about that same clock. It’s a kind of augmented reality art that’s hard to explain but remarkable to watch. This idea of a video of a building remixed and projected back onto itself also features in the aforementioned Creative Internet site. Here’s a good one (from slide 71), to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

The World Is Full of Interesting Things

Via the Google Operating System blog, I came across this collection miscellaneous cool stuff: The World Is Full of Interesting Things. It was put together by something called the “Creative Lab” at Google, although the stuff they feature doesn’t originate at Google. Some of it’s been around for a while, but much like Greg Rutter’s Definitive List of The 99 Things You Should Have Already Experienced On The Internet Unless You’re a Loser or Old or Something, it’s fun to see it all in one place. Although it is a little exhausting.

Out of the dozens of fun items, one that I especially like is Star Wars Uncut, a version of Star Wars in which each 15 seconds is contributed by a different person. If that sounds chaotic and insane, it is.

Star Wars Uncut “The Escape” from Casey Pugh on Vimeo.

Vigilante sensing

New Scientists reports this week on a green technotopia experiment in Portugal called PlanIT Valley (sounds very Portuguese, no?). The idea is to build a sustainable city with loads of sensors to detect when and where energy resources should be applied.

Sensors in every building will measure occupancy, temperature, humidity and energy use. This information will be fed to a central “brain”, along with information on energy production from photovoltaic devices and wind turbines, as well as water used and waste produced. The brain can then use this information to control each aspect of the city.

A centralized superbrain sounds a little off the mark to me. I’m skeptical of “trust our central controller” efficiencies. The projects I’ve gotten more excited about involve ad hoc networks of sensors passing information and making local decisions based on the best available information.

Here’s an example of an ad hoc sensor network: birdwatching. BirdsEye is an iPhone app that tells you where the birds are based on what other people using BirdsEye are saying. The database is constantly updated by mobs of birdwatchers.

“Citizen sensors” wired together can act as a sort of supercharged public watchdog, as with the SeeClickFix iPhone app. Got a nasty pothole on your street? Take a picture and report it. Within minutes, other folks can pile on your request and help bring it to the attention of City Hall.

A small but enthusiastic group armed with cheap sensors can make a big difference in public policy. Consider car emissions. You need to get your car inspected once a year, right? And your car always passes, because it’s well-maintained and you’re a good citizen. But what about those old guzzlers that are destined to fail the test? After all, one stinky clunker can undo the goodness of twenty virtuous hybrids. How do they stay on the road? They cheat. It’s not hard to game the system, because a system of annual inspections is a terrible way to find offenders. But as it happens, it’s not hard to detect these cars on the road. They only offend when they drive, and when they drive, you can find them. You can build systems, something like speed traps, that measure emissions and take pictures of license plates. Laws or not, it may be possible to shame people into cleaning up their act.

Call it vigilante sensing. It’s not Big Brother, it’s the Big Crowd. I admit that it has some dark and dangerous possibilities, but like it or not, vigilante sensing is coming. Are the houses in your town poorly insulated? Do the natural gas pipes in your neighborhood leak? Do the lights stay on all night in the business park? All these can be monitored easily enough by simple networked sensors. And once you’ve got data, you’ve got power.

Segregation made obvious

These images have been generating a lot of comments lately, but if you haven’t seen them yet, you really should. Shown below is a picture of Detroit, color-coded (ahem) by the ethnicity of the residents. If you had to guess, where would you say the border was between the city of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs?

Eric Fischer created this image (and many others like it) using census data. He, in turn, was inspired by Bill Rankin, who runs a site called from a site called Radical Cartography where he created a similar sort of plot for Chicago.

There’s lots of other great stuff on Radical Cartography, including this chart on ethnicity and population density. It tells you something that you already know, but it’s interesting to see: where the population is sparse, it’s overwhelmingly white. I’m going to spend a while crawling through all these maps…

Look at Fischer’s various city maps, and see if you don’t agree with me that the level of segregation in America is disappointingly obvious. By the way, of the various blogs I came across talking about Fischer’s plots, I particularly enjoyed reading Brian Hayes’ discussion on bit-player. He includes a discussion about how one can demonstrate mathematically that sharp segregation gradients can come about through surprisingly mild preferences.