Thursday, November 30, 2006

Monday, November 27, 2006

Ten Left Feet

Sure, a dancing robot squid seems harmless first!!

Robot Holocaust Continues: Jeux Sans Frontieres

Doomsday draws ever nigher:
George the robot is playing hide-and-seek with scientist Alan Schultz. George whirrs and hides behind a post until he's found.

Then a bit later, he hunts for and finds Schultz hiding.

What's so impressive about robots playing children's games?
"If looks could kill, they probably will in games without frontiers, war without tears..."
For a robot to actually find a place to hide, and then hunt for its human playmate is a new level of human interaction. The machine must take cues from people and behave accordingly.

This is the beginning of a real robot revolution: giving robots some humanity.

"Robots in the human environment, to me that's the final frontier," said Cynthia Breazeal, robotic life group director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The human environment is as complex as it gets; it pushes the envelope."

Robotics is moving from software and gears operating remotely — Mars, the bottom of the ocean or assembly lines — to finally working with, beside and even on people.

"Robots have to understand people as people," Breazeal said. "Right now, the average robot understands people like a chair: It's something to go around."
Soon, though, the average robot will understand people as "something to destroy."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Deeply Unpleasant Fact of the Day

Bats, did you know, are apparently greasy and dirty by nature and, thus, their presence in the corners and crevasses of one's home can be detected by looking for telltale dark stains on eaves and in attics, rather like the stain someone who uses Brylcream will leave if he lies down on your couch.

This from my Terminix rep, who was here today investigating an unsettling scrabbling noise I heard emanating from the wall Saturday night--happily not bat-related, as it turns out. However, I may festoon the attic with antimacassars just to be on the safe side.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Balloon Man

On Friday, I ventured down to Gotham to see my all-time favorite musician, Robyn Hitchcock, in concert at a venue called the Hiro Ballroom, which I had never actually heard of, but is actually a rather nice performance space in the basement of the Maritime Hotel at 16th and 9th.

For those unfamiliar with Robyn Hitchcock, he is a British singer/songwriter/guitarist whose first band The Soft Boys (1977-1980) was a strange melding of Beatles-esque pop, Captain Beefheart rhythmic strangeness, and Bob Dylan's mid-60s-era flights of lyrical fancy. (This couldn't have been more out-of-step with the British punk movement of the time, but The Soft Boys would influence bands like R,E.M. and The Replacements, to name two.) Propelling it all are Robyn's often surreal lyrics, which typically involve insects, fish, amphibians, and other elements of the biosphere. He's always seemed to me to be best described as "if Gary Larson--of The Far Side comic strip--wrote lyrics for The Beatles". He and his band The Egyptians (1986-1993) were college radio favorites in the mid-1980s (which is where I found him, though certainly not on Syracuse's college radio station, which at the time was devoted to Top 40--bleech), with all his albums from 1986 to 1989 routinely hitting number one on the college album charts. He was picked up by a major label in 1988 and came close to grazing the mainstream in 1991/1992 (at the insistence of his record label with whom he split not long afterward), but has more or been a cult figure (and elder statesman of alternative rock) ever since, and his return to independent record labels (and Internet distribution) has meant that he can follow his muse wherever it takes him. And on Friday it took him to the Hiro Ballroom in New York.

Robyn was playing with a backup band (something he hasn't done in a while, as he has tended to perform solo acoustic shows for the better part of the last 15 years) which he dubbed The Venus 3 (a play on The Minus 5, which also features many of these same musicians), comprising guitarist Peter Buck (R.E.M., and who has appeared on many Hitchcock albums dating back to the mid-1980s), bassist/guitarist Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus 5), and drummer Bill Rieflin (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, of all things).

It was a very fun show; Robyn was in good spirits, and his between-song narratives were as surreal (and often hysterically funny) as ever, and the band played well together. McCaughey and Hitchcock had a good chemistry and McCaughey knew exactly what to say to get Robyn on one of his long, surreal tangents.

The album the band is touring behind, Olé Tarantula, is arguably Robyn's best since 1989's Queen Elvis (1996's Moss Elixir is up there, though). Unlike the last band album he did (1999's Jewels for Sophia), the songs on Olé Tarantula hang together better and seem more of a piece. It also helps that much of the album was recorded by the same band at about the same time and not compiled from random recordings made over an extended perood of time, which gave JFS rather a "patched-together" feel. They performed a good chunk of the new album (about half of it) as well as some oldies but goodies (reaching back to Robyn's Soft Boys days for 1980's "Queen of Eyes" and "I Wanna Destroy You"). The Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians albums Element of Light (1987) and (my personal favorite album of all time) Globe of Frogs (1988) were also heavily represented (a good thing).

He was even joined by special guest Morris Windsor (drummer for The Soft Boys and the Egyptians) who lent his distinctive vocal harmonies to the last several songs.

I've seen Robyn on every tour he did between 1989 and 1996 (which is easy when you live in New York) but regret that I went a good seven years before seeing him again (two shows at the now-closed Bottom Line in NYC on Halloween, 2003). I have always enjoyed his concerts (obviously). In 1998, Jonathan Demme made a concert film (à la his Stop Making Sense film of Talking Heads) of Robyn called Storefront Hitchcock, which gives a good sense of what a Hitchcock concert is like. It's available on DVD--in fact, I think I'll put it on now.

The set list (in more or less the proper order, as I recall) for Friday night was:

Adventure Rocket Ship
Sally Was a Legend
Olé Tarantula
Somewhere Apart
Queen of Eyes (The Soft Boys)
If You Were a Priest
Jewels for Sophia
Chinese Bones
N.Y. Doll
Underground Sun
Flesh Number One
The Authority Box
Madonna of the Wasps
(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs
Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)

Aw Shit Man (from The Minus 5's latest album)
Eight Miles High (the classic Byrds song)
I Wanna Destroy You (The Soft Boys)

Dragon Their Heels

Hmm... Says the Times of London:
Sausages affected by draconian trade laws

A SPICY sausage known as the Welsh Dragon will have to be renamed after trading standards’ officers warned the manufacturers that they could face prosecution because it does not contain dragon.
The sausages will now have to be labelled Welsh Dragon Pork Sausages to avoid any confusion among customers.
Get it..."draconian trade laws"? Har har har.

I would worry, therefore, about buying anything labeled "baby food."

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Meatier Shower

If you're in the Northeast U.S. (or Europe) and the sky is clear, keep an eye out Saturday night for what is expected to be a more spectacular than usual Leonid meteor shower. Just head outside about 11:45 p.m. (EST). The shower is expected to last about a half hour.
Bundle up warmly, find a dark spot with an open view of the sky, lie back on the ground or in a reclining lawn chair, and just gaze up into the stars. Any Leonids you see will be coming from the northeast. Be patient.
Sky & Telescope has more here.

The Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

This is wonderful news: mix the utter unwatchability of cable television with the Unholy Device From Hell that is the cellphone.
Embracing a technology that has unnerved media and telecommunications companies, a major European wireless provider will let customers watch their home cable TV on a cell phone if they also have a device called the Slingbox back at the house.

3 Group will launch the new service in Britain first, starting Dec. 1, followed by three more of its 11 markets in early 2007, the wireless company announced Thursday.

Two new handsets running on 3's next-generation wireless network will feature the Sling application, which customers can use to watch any channel available on their cable TV at home. The phones also can be used to control a digital video recorder at home, pausing and rewinding live television, playing previously recorded shows, or setting up the DVR to record a program.
I guess my question is, if you're not at home watching television, aren't the chances pretty good that you're doing something you'd rather be doing than staying at home watching television?

Thoughts for Your Penny

Should we abolish the penny? A topic that arises time and time again, taken up in today's WSJ Econoblog. Sure, nothing costs a penny anymore--not even a penny, which costs about 1.23 cents. The debate takes tediousness to stratospheric heights:
The main problem is that pennies waste our valuable time. With American wages averaging over $18 per hour, it takes only two seconds for the typical person to earn one cent. Unfortunately, according to a widely cited study by the National Association of Convenience Stores and the Walgreen's drug store chain, using a penny probably adds slightly more than two seconds to the average retail transaction.

Picture yourself waiting in line to make a purchase. There are, say, three people in front of you and each of them decides to pay in cash and either fumbles around for a penny or receives one in change. If the line's length is constant, each penny use wastes the time of five people. By the time you reach the front of the line this has been multiplied threefold and a half a minute of time has been literally wasted because when you're standing in line you aren't doing what you want to do -- perhaps running back to your own business or getting off your feet at the end of a long day.
I don't know when the last time these economists went shopping, but I can't remember the last time I saw anyone on line anywhere fumbling for pennies. (They usually use debit cards these days.) And receiving a penny is no biggie; shove in your pocket and move on. And anyone who is too busy to spare two (or even 30) seconds of time has bigger problems than pennies, and should probably get a stress test before their heart explodes.

But that's just my two cents. (Doh!)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Robot Holocaust Part [I Don't Remember]: Destroyer, Heal Thyself!

Great. Now our inevitable overlords are just going to be harder to destroy--not that they weren't already:
New Robot Adapts to Injuries

A newly designed robot can sense and recover from unexpected damage, an ability that is sure to prove handy in dangerous terrain, researchers announced today.

Living organisms have the ability to continuously evaluate their abilities and surroundings and adjust their behavior accordingly. If a person twists an ankle, he walks differently so as to not put too much pressure on the injured muscles.

But robots aren’t typically equipped with such capabilities. They are programmed with a rigid model describing them and the surrounding environment. When they become damaged or something unexpected occurs, they are typically unable to adapt, limiting their potential.

Often when exploring new terrain, such as on another a planet, researchers cannot predict what a robot might encounter. So they designed a machine that can improvise in response to unexpected injuries.

Referred to as Starfish, the new four-legged robot creates a model of itself and revises that model to respond and adapt to injury by synthesizing new behaviors.
"Starfish," eh? Sure, it sounds cute and quaint, but think about this: A starfish often feeds on its prey (like a clam) by prying open the clam's shell and forcing its stomach into the clam to digest it "on the half shell." Let's hope our robot predators' relationship with us doesn't come to that.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Egyptian Cream

Take a brilliant songwriter (my favorite), a cool song off the best album he's done since the 1980s, and combine that with some super-cheesy Flash animation and you pretty much get what is apparently the "official" video for "Adventure Rocket Ship." One longs for the days of his stop-motion animation featuring vegetables and lightbulbs.

I Think, Therefore IM

Be sure to check out The Industry Measure blog for my incoherent mutterings on last week's ad:tech show as well as the connection between a 3.3-million-year-old skeleton and multichannel publishing (I sound like James Burke all of a sudden...let me see if I can work James Watt's steam engine into it somehow...).

Nefarious Porpoises

Um, OK:
Scientists have taught dolphins to combine both rhythm and vocalisations to produce music, resulting in an extremely high-pitched, short version of the Batman theme song.

The findings, outlined in two studies, are the first time that nonhuman mammals have demonstrated they can recognise rhythms and reproduce them vocally.
My choice would have been the theme from Flipper, but perhaps that's just me.

Olé Tarantula!

This being the case, my next Cinco de Mayo party will be quite the event:
The burn of hot peppers and the searing pain of a spider bite may have a common cause. New research suggests that molecules in hot peppers and in a certain spider's venom target the same receptor on nerve cells.
The team purchased venoms collected from a variety of spider, scorpion, and snail species known to deliver painful bites. The researchers diluted the venoms and added them to dishes containing human-kidney cells that had been genetically altered to carry various types of channels.

Only the venom of one West Indian tarantula species, Psalmopoeus cambridgei, sent a flood of ions into cells that sported the same receptor that's sent by capsaicin. When the scientists broke down that venom, they identified three component molecules responsible for the rush of ions.

Sing a Song of Six Squid

Mark your calendars--December 22 is Cephalopodmas. And nothing gets one in the Cephalopodmas mood like ambling from door to door enchanting (or perhaps terrifying, as the case may be) your neighbors with Cephalopodmas carols. Wait till you see my tree...

Never heard of this venerable holiday? Well, the science blog Pharyngula feels it's all because of a cutural War on Cephalopodmas. They may have a point.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Green with Envy

Official video for The Decemberists' "O Valencia." For those waiting for the green screen to come alive with some kind of CGI, well, apparently the point was for the viewer to do it him/herself. (I'm not.) The same might also be said for the lip-syncing.

Monday, November 06, 2006

"Under the Boughs Unbowed..."

I drove out to Boston last weekend to see a concert Saturday night at the Orpheum Theater with mi hermano, a band called The Decemberists, who hail from Portland, OR. I discovered them a year and a half ago, following the release of their third album Picaresque, and one of my first blog postings ever was a review of that record, which I believe I described as sounding rather like "pirate folk music" or "if Herman Melville fronted Fairport Convention." Singer/songwriter Colin Meloy's songs are mini-stories (he has a degree in creative writing from some school or other), typically involving doomed lovers or watery deaths, often both. It's a very literate (and literary) style of songwriting that does tend to send the listener running for the dictionary every once in a while ("the curlews carved their arabesques," for example...but "soft as fontanel"? Oh, ick...). Musically, it can be very challenging and eclectic and I have grown to like them rather a lot, and have acquired just about their full discography (which includes only four albums, two EPs, and the odd single).

Anyway, they have a new record out called The Crane Wife (no, not Lilith), with a three-part title track based on a Japanese folk story of the same object lesson about love and greed and all the stuff that makes for a good, rousing folk story. It's a much darker record than Picaresque, with none of the whimsical light-hearted songs like "The Sporting Life," which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, it hearkens back to their first album, Castaways and Cutouts, which is also a bit on the dark side. It took me a few listens on the drive to and from a Syracuse football game to really get into it (and erase the memory of the wretched performance of the football team--"The Sporting Life" indeed...) and it's one of those records that take a few spins to unlock its charms, but once you do, it becomes a top favorite.

Interestingly, they've expanded their sonic palette by incorporating bits of 1970s progressive rock (at one point they seem to channel Emerson, Lake, and Palmer--but, hey, I like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer). Actually, bits of the new album (especially the 12-minute song suite "The Island") remind me of Thick As a Brick/A Passion Play-era Jethro Tull (1972/73), where they mixed classic English and Celtic folk elements with blues and put it all in a progressive rock context. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's one I drink down with great relish. Anyway, I must have listened to The Crane Wife about 100 times by now and I still can't get enough of it it (that and Robyn Hitchcock's Olé Tarantula, about which more after I see him in concert in two weeks...).

In concert, The Decemberists are wonderful. There are five regular bandmembers (who are all multinstrumentalists), and they were augmented by an additional violinist/keyboardist who, in that typical "augmented bandmember" way, didn't always have something to do, so at times just kind of stood there looking awkward--or worse, digging out the dreaded tambourine. My brother and I were often challenged by identifying just what it was that lead guitarist Chris Funk was playing--at one point, he had something that was played by turning a metal crank--it kind of looked like a Gatling gun. The credits to the new album indicate that he plays something called a hurdy-gurdy (and it looks like what I would imagine something called a hurdy-gurdy would look like--and Wikipedia confirms my suspicion). They also did an on-the-spot recreation of the Boston Massacre, which we had a hard time seeing from our rather distant vantage point.

Anyway, it was a terrific show and if they ever come to your neck of the woods, do try to check them out. One thing that took me completely by surprise, through, was the crowd--I was (and I am not exaggerating) the oldest person there, and by at least 15-20 years. My brother teased me about this, until I had to point out that, at only four years my junior, he was the second oldest person there. At first, we thought they were college students (I can see how The Decemberists would appeal to English majors, much like Elvis Costello was required listening among English majors back when I was one in the 1980s), but it soon dawned on us that most of them were high school kids. Maybe I underestimate the youth of today, but I really have no idea why this band would appeal to teenagers (the bandmembers themselves are only a couple years younger than me)--and the crowd really went for the obscure stuff, too. On the plus side, there was no line to get beer.... But I have to say, they were probably the best behaved rock audience I've ever seen, certainly better behaved than crowds were when I was their age.

Anyway, for those who are interested, here is a link to a Boston Globe interview with Meloy, published the day of the concert and a positive review of the show published today.

For the record, here is a set list (more or less in order, near as I can remember):

The Crane Wife 1 and 2
The Crane Wife 3
We Both Go Down Together
The Engine Driver
Yankee Bayonet (I Will be Home Then)
The Perfect Crime #2
Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect
O Valencia!
July, July!
Shankill Butchers
The Island (Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning)
16 Military Wives
Sons and Daughters

Red Right Ankle
A Cautionary Song
(unidentified song)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Vinyl Frontier

If you're like me (and I know I am) and grew up in a world before MP3s (or even CDs), you have many vinyl records. Many of them date from high school or earlier and thus are best kept in a dark corner of the basement never to be seen or heard again. But then, we still have our favorites. Some records I own and like have yet to appear on CD (like Warren Zevon's The Envoy, for example) and, of course, several years ago I got in an "I refuse to buy crap I already own" mood and thus have not "upgraded" some vinyl oldies to CD. But how then to rip vinyl to MP3 and play those old Tull records (like the appropriately named "Living in the Past") on my iPod? Well, you could do what I did, and run an audio cable from a stereo into a Powerbook and use a very good piece of audio recording shareware called SoundStudio to record vinyl to AIFF files, which can then be burned to an audio CD and subsequently ripped to MP3. (With a little tweaking, skips and pops can be fixed and the result actually sounds better than some of the el cheapo CD releases of old albums.)

Or, you could pick up this new USB turntable:
This belt-driven turntable plugs into the USB port of any computer. Fire up the included Audacity software and begin ripping those fabulous songs that you felt the need to listen to one last time.

Leader of the Pac

Via Boing Boing, a little geek humor sure to amuse those of us who spend too much time making charts in Excel: "Percentage of Chart Which Resembles Pac-Man," represented as a pie-chart, resembling Pac Man.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Everyone's a Critic

Thanks to Amazon, they are. Sci-fi author extraordinaire Charles Stross compiles bad reader reviews of classic literature. My favorites:
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:

goosedog 69 (New York) wrote: "if you don't like reading books with way too much detail than don't buy this book. when i was reading it i couldn't understand anything it said. if you are older maybe you wouldn't think it's boring, or if you like this author's books, but i thought it was very boring and it took me forever and a half to read."

A reader wrote: "I found this book difficult to follow and hard to hold my interest. I am an English teacher so I don't think it's me. I was revved about the book and started it immediately unpon receipt. I didn't even finish it--which is something I can say about few books..."

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare:

Son of Sammy wrote: "i just read this book. everybody like always talks about how great it is and everything. but i don't think so. like, it's been done before, right?? soooo cliched. omg."

The Evilution of Technology

Think technology is evil? Sure, we all do. There is no doubt that the cellphone is the work of Satan (I was nearly rear-ended again yesterday by another cellphone zombie driver--I tell you, these clowns are making agoraphobia sound more and more appealing).

Anyway, Wired looks at the history of evil and technology:
Early last century, the Mark of the Beast was your Social Security card, which presumably was encoded into the Computer Punch Card of the Beast and fed into Satan's Mainframe.

After that, the Mark of the Beast was your credit card, and in the '70s the UPC symbol was the new Mark, presumably because of the passage in Revelations stating, "And the mark was placed upon the Wonder Bread, both white and the kind they call wheat, even though it's basically a slightly more tan version of the white stuff."

Now, of course, the Mark of the Beast is RFID chips. It's not enough that they might get your purchases tracked or your identity stolen, they might also get you booked into the Hotel Inferno for all eternity. Thanks, Wal-Mart! Totally worth it for discount cotton balls!
And, as a public service, they map the very Handbook of Evil (that is, The Book of Revelation) to modern technology and find that St. John was even more Divine than we thought.
"And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind."

This is obviously a reference to file sharing. The "stars" in question are the hard-working entertainers of the world, "falling to earth" because of the "casting" of their works to and fro like figs (figs were the main form of entertainment in the ancient world) by a "mighty wind." A mighty wind? Like a "torrent," perhaps?

"And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains."

Clearly the "hiding" is the anonymity provided by "dens" of personal web spaces like LiveJournal and MySpace. The rocks are friends lists or something, I'm still working that one out. Once the mighty men start joining MySpace, we're screwed. Don't do it, mighty men!

"And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."

Frankly, I can't think of anyone more bitter than political bloggers. The "waters" are the blogosphere, and Wormwood is probably a misreading of WordPress. They have several of the same letters!

"And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them."

That's pretty much how I feel after a few minutes looking at homemade music videos on YouTube.
Personally, I think these passages foretell the looming Robot Holocaust, but I could be wrong. Though I'm not.