Seeing Eye Birds: Parahawking

Guide dogs can see what a blind person cannot: doors, stoplights, crosswalks. Hawks can see what no person can see: thermals. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone flying a glider could keep a hawk on a tether for the purpose of sniffing out flight-sustaining thermal updrafts?

There’s no tether, but that’s the basic idea behind parahawking. The birds fly free but are rewarded from time to time. As it says in the FAQ.

Our birds need to be rewarded for guiding us into the thermals. During the flight the passenger will place small morsels of meat onto his gloved hand, the birds will come and gently land on the hand to take the food, and then gracefully fly away to find the next thermal. A perfect symbiotic relationship.

The video is a little long and same-y, but it’s worth watching to see the birds landing on the customer’s arm for a mid-flight snack. Start about 2 minutes in if you want to jump right to the good stuff.

I can see how this would go down big with the swim-with-dolphins set.

[Spotted on DIY Drones]

How ironic!

Mike Duncan runs a podcast called The History of Rome which I thoroughly recommend. One of the things that makes it enjoyable is oddball digressions like this. You won’t run across a passage like this in a textbook.

In November of 361 AD, Constantius II died and Julian, last of the Constantinians, inherited the empire. It would be an ironic end to the dynasty. At least I’m pretty sure it’s ironic. Sometimes I think that no situation actually fits the technical definition of irony and that the word just sort of hangs out in the linguistic ether singing a siren’s song that’s designed to crash the unsuspecting against the jagged rocks of pedantry. But I’m pretty sure it’s ironic. Constantine began the dynasty by single-handedly launching Christianity to prominence, and his nephew would end it by attempting to single-handedly turn back the clock and bury Christianity. That’s ironic right? It sure seems ironic. But it’s probably just interesting.

That’s from Episode 145, Julian the Apostate. We’re down to the last hundred or so years before the fall of Rome. I have no idea how long he intends to follow events in the east. Could take a while given that Constantinople didn’t fall for another thousand years.

You know what would really be ironic? If… no, wait, suppose that… oh never mind.

The New York Times Paywall

Whenever I’m talking to someone who believes that only chumps pay for digital content (Dude, why do you pay for music?), I think about street performers. Have you ever dropped a dollar in the cigar box in front of that cellist in Harvard Square? Yeah? Well what kind of a dope are you? That guy would’ve kept playing with or without your money. Sucker.

Like a lot of people, I was sad to see the New York Times turn off free iPhone access for all articles, but I had to concede that you can’t really expect a company to give away its primary source of revenue forever. I knew this day would come. I had expected a barbed wire fence to go up around the paper, so I’ve been impressed with the relatively enlightened approach that they’ve taken.

My brother just sent me this article called How The New York Times Paywall Is Working. It does a good job of explaining the difference between a gentle paywall (think “please”) and a fierce paywall (think barbed wire). It’s easy to saunter past the gentle paywall, and a lot of hard core geeks are going to laugh in your face. But ultimately that’s the one that’s going to work. The Times is running a great big experiment to see if the gentle paywall will work. And good for them.

There’s a theory about taxation that says people, on average, will pay what they think they should pay. If they think they’re getting screwed, they use fraud and willful neglect to limit what the government can collect. If they’re getting a good deal, so the theory goes, enough reasonable people will pay up to let the enterprise keep rolling. It may well be that the United States is going through its own New York Times-like convulsion (Dude, why do you pay for government?).

Call me an optimist, but I think enough reasonable people can recognize a good deal when they see one. Transparency serves everyone eventually, but it does take a while for the lessons to come home. As Washington remarked to Lafayette, “It is to be regretted, I confess, that democratical states must always feel before they can see. It is this that makes their government slow, but the people will be right at last.”

I’m convinced that almost all content will shift to this sort of honor system. The New York Times, like the US government, will be leaner, but it will be solvent and functional.

Then again, it might work more like this old Monty Python sketch in which Mr. Ford from the orphanage (Terry Jones) tries to convince a puzzled merchant banker (John Cleese) to give him a pound for charity.

Banker: I’m awfully sorry I don’t understand. Can you just explain exactly what you want.

Mr Ford: Well, I want you to give me a pound, and then I go away and give it to the orphans.

Banker: Yes?

Mr Ford: Well, that’s it.

Banker: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.

Civilization is for suckers.

Managing contact info for couples

I keep thinking there must be a standard way to handle this situation. My contact managers (in the iPhone and GMail) want to divide the world into individuals. But I want to maintain contacts for couples too. That way if they share an address, children, or even (gasp!) a common land line phone number, I see it all in one place, rather than maybe here with her info or maybe there with his.

As a result I end up with three records: one for him, one for her, and one for the two of them. Birthdays travel with the individual, and anniversaries travel with the couple.

It’s a small enough annoyance, but what’s the canonical way to solve this?