Card tricks to spread spectrum radio…

I read an article in today’s New York Times and started thinking – dangerous stuff. I managed to get from card tricks to spread spectrum radio by connecting five people. Here they are – I’ll use birth names so it’s not too obvious:

Richard Potash -> Joseph Pujol -> Melvin Kaminsky -> Harvey Kormen -> Hedwig Kiesler

The article in the NYT concerned a dispute between magicians Eric Walton and Ricky Jay (born Richard Jay Potash). I’m a big fan of Mr. Jay’s – he fits my mental model of a perfect sleight-of-hand artist – well read, raffish, incredibly good at what he does. On the dispute itself, I’ll yield the floor to Teller (he’s the small, silent crazy one as contrasted with Penn’s large, loud crazy one).

Outright ownership isn’t at stake, he added, but Mr. Jay’s act constituted a painstaking and innovative revival of some little-practiced classics, and a certain code of courtesy should apply.

“If an act hasn’t been prominently performed for a long time, and someone takes the trouble to bring it back from absolute death and put it into his act with fine touches, and which at least hasn’t been seen by a current generation,” he said, “the gentlemanly thing to do is say, ‘That’s his for now.'”

That said, he added, “magicians are not unique in their absence of creativity.

I have a couple of Ricky Jay’s books (I covet Cards as Weapons, but a used softcover copy of that tome starts around $200) and in one of them, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, Mr. Jay introduces us to:

Le Petomane (Joseph Pujol). Le Petomane was a performer at the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s and he was, it’s safe to say, sui generis. I believe the best way to describe Le Petomane is as a fartiste. It’s pretty obvious that:

Mel Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky) knew all about Mr. Pujol before he made Blazing Saddles. Aside from the bean scene, there’s also the name of the Governor Brooks plays in one of his roles – William J. Le Petomane. The Gov’s conniving henchman, played by:

Harvey Korman (born Harvey Kormen – go figure) is named Hedley Lamarr. This won’t be news to anyone, but an ongoing gag is confusion of Hedley’s name with that of:

Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Kiesler). If all you know about Hedy Lamarr is that she was a movie star, I encourage you to click through to her Wikipedia entry. An eventful life, to say the least – in 1942 she received a patent for a very early version of frequency hopping – in this context, to make radio guided torpedoes more difficult to defend against.

There you have it – proof positive that I ought to be committed immediately. While you’re getting the paperwork ready, I’ll just drift off a bit and put myself back in the late 30’s – Hedwig and I are getting on a Short S23 flying boat for the trip to East Africa…



Going to a Zuchtshau, everybody
Going to a Zuchtshau, c’mon now

(apologies to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles)

Many nice dachshunds were seen, much dog person blatter (I think that’s the right word) occurred.


Neuros OSD

I saw this post yesterday on Engadget, announcing a beta hardware release of the Neuros OSD media box. The beta is mostly – as far as I can tell – because of the state of software development on the platform. A really interesting box (as many of Neuros’ products are) – it’ll record analog audio/video, transcode same for PSPs and iPodi, play back content, etc. The development model is wild – it’s a Linux-based platform, and Neuros is offering cash money bounties for new code that will implement specific capabilities.

Before you rush to try to buy one – too late. There were 200 units available at ThinkGeek, but they are long gone. I’m not sure how quickly it happened, but getting a post on BoingBoing was, I’m sure the kiss of death (life?).

Regarding the development model – I’ve read a couple reactions that accuse Neuros of stringing along aspiring code-jockeys in order to get software on the cheap. A comment on Engadget:

Let OSS developers do the work for a few hundreds which would cost a few tentousands if the would employ some developers. The OSS developers even have to buy the hardware by themselves. Hopefully nobody will bite the bait. This will just spoil the jobmarket and value of work for professional devs.

And one from the reBang blog:

Talk to any Industrial Designer and if they have any experience they’ll probably tell you that many design competitions are a deceptive way for greedy companies to get designs at little or no cost. One competition not so long ago offered as a prize a small cash prize and a job. Oh, and all those entries sent in by designers too wet behind the ears to know better? Those concepts belonged to the company as part of their condition for entry.

and later in the post:

And so it goes without saying that when I read on Boing Boing (Link) about PVR manufacturer Neuros’ offer of cash rewards to those programmers/hackers who code features which (big surprise) help them sell more product, I thought of my design compatriots… too naive to see how they were hurting themselves and helping The Man. Instead of hiring a programmer who could use the money to pay off student loans or raise a family, Neuros offers a pittance to entice these people to do the work for what will probably be less than paying them minimum wage (with no health insurance).

I think both sets of observations miss an important point – the hacker authored code development was going to happen anyway. If a platform can be made to run somebody else’s software (and it seems sometimes, even if it can’t), pretty quickly a community of hackers precipitates out around the hardware. Think about the PSP – Sony is in some sense the anti-Neuros – every firmware release seems to have as one of it’s goals breaking user’s ability to run ‘homebrew’. And yet, somebody always seems to find a way to make the PSP run what they want it to run. Neuros is encouraging this – “here’s the hardware and a base OS/set of capabilities – go nuts”. Are they hoping to benefit from a vibrant user/hacker development community? Sure. Are they, by doing so, exploiting that community? There I’m not so convinced.

Further, it seems to me that reBang’s comparison between design competitions and Neuros is inaccurate in one important aspect. From Neuros’ Hacking for Cash rules:

2. All code must be licensed under GPL (or LGPL or GPL compatible licenses as appropriate). You are allowed to use code from other GPL projects, but please obey the wishes of the authors.

The design submissions became the property of the company sponsoring the competition. The code produced for Neuros does not become Neuros’ IP – it’s out there as usable, repurpose-able stuff. Will it run without modifications on a completely different platform? Almost certainly not. But, can it be ported, reused, and looked at with a view towards doing similar things in a wildly different environment? I think so.

Do I believe that Neuros is destined to succeed? I have no idea – there are a lot of things that could go wrong. I do think that to write them off as cynically trying to extract free code from a bunch of dupes is to ignore a sea change that’s happening in the world of ideas, creation and information.

Rattus exulans, slavery and Rapa Nui

Those who have read Jared Diamond’s Collapse are familiar with his analysis of the disaster on Easter Island. Diamond’s explanation focuses on over-exploitation of resources (especially deforestation) driven by the desire to build moai as the explanation for why by 1870, native culture had essentially disappeared. Now comes Terry Hunt to tell us that the scenario laid out in Collapse may not be accurate. His research indicates that deforestation started almost as soon as people colonised the island and that a major factor in the deforestation was the Polynesian rat. Rats ate the seeds of the now-extinct Jubaea palm, preventing reforestation. Prof. Hunt does not believe that the number of Polynesian colonists ever reached the 15,000 – 20,000 level, rather it hit an equilibrium of approximately 3,000 early on. The people that Europeans first encountered in 1722 were not a remnant population – they were it – the Rapanui culture. Where did the culture go? Disease, conflict with the Europeans and enslavement.

I believe that the world faces today an unprecedented global environmental crisis, and I see the usefulness of historical examples of the pitfalls of environmental destruction. So it was with some unease that I concluded that Rapa Nui does not provide such a model. But as a scientist I cannot ignore the problems with the accepted narrative of the island’s prehistory. Mistakes or exaggerations in arguments for protecting the environment only lead to oversimplified answers and hurt the cause of environmentalism. We will end up wondering why our simple answers were not enough to make a difference in confronting today’s problems.

See this for a timeline – popular perception vs. what Hunt’s work suggests.

More fun with Hippopotami.

Mr. Jalopy writes a great commentary on Royal Copenhagen’s Hippopotamus Service (warning – link to PDF). That would be service as in twelve dozen pieces of hand-painted porcelain – Royal Copenhagen will not check your hippo’s fluid levels (and don’t get me started on another definition of service as a verb).

My brain just cramped – I needed to go look it up, but anyway – hippos are bulls, cows and calves. Remembering this kind of info has a slightly higher current priority; when I went in to vote in the recent primary the Town Moderator was trying to convince the Town Clerk that the right word for a male bear was… I got the quiz, answered boar, sow, cub and was declared a genius by the Moderator. That discussion was occasioned by the presence – in the playground of the elementary school next door to my house – of a medium sized black bear. The kids didn’t get to go out for recess that day and it’s been the talk of the town since.

Security tradeoffs.

There’s a wonderful item in Bruce Schneier’s latest Crypto-Gram that captures the balancing act between security and convenience/usability. The issue is how to bear-proof trash cans in Yosemite. The story isn’t well sourced, but it’s one that illustrates a point even if the tale can’t be verified. My favorite quote:

Said one park ranger, ‘There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists.’

A tangent – I have it on good authority that the most dangerous animal in Yellowstone (besides H. sapien) is the Bison, filling the same niche in North America as the hippo does in Africa: very large, shockingly fast, single-minded people stompers.

Some thoughts on teevee wildlife shows…

A screen crawl on the AM news informed me that Steve Irwin (Croc Hunter) is dead. The NYT web site says that a stingray pierced his heart with its barb. My condolences to his wife and kids. He was always in the middle ground for me as a tv wildlife presenter – not overly offensive, but the crazy aussie persona didn’t wear well. As a bitchy aside – the guy I find completely beyond the pale is Austin Stevens – ‘Snakemaster’? – jeebus. Take a look at his page on Animal Planet (I’m not going to link – you’ll have to find it yourself) and contrast/compare with illustrations in It’s a Man’s World. The only thing Mr. Stevens is missing are zombie Nazis hassling women in their skivvies knickers. The Stevens show (one of two that I watched – the other was on the King Cobra) that really tore it for me was when he went anaconda wrasslin’. We are supposed to believe that he happened upon an anaconda, jumped into the water to grab it and thrash around in a very manly fashion, and the equipment needed to do a Matrix-bullet-time stop action pan just happened to be set up in place? Again, jeebus.

Which brings me to my point(s). We are comfortable with meta-info and moving through the fourth wall in much of the rest of our entertainment (and our world for that matter). Why hasn’t someone put together a wildlife show (or ‘adventure’ show, or ‘hunting’ show for that matter) that looks at how one gets hold of 5 minutes worth of good lion on zebra action footage? Presumably, the show would need to commit to some level of fair chase – setup shots with the host in Costa Rica followed by a quick trip to the local zoo for shots of the snake may be more than the audience can handle. Let’s get the whole production crew involved – let’s try to show the level of effort required to get some real semi-staged (i.e. getting the snake out where it can be filmed) footage of the host near a critter. My strong suspicion is that wildlife photography is like many other endeavors where one is at the mercy of Mom Nature – lots of preparation, lots of sweating and/or freezing and/or getting bit by bugs, and very little of the thing itself (though that very little is, both by itself and because of the level of prep and discomfort, incredibly satisying). Twenty nine minutes of sitting in a blind, thirty seconds of almost getting the shot and thirty seconds of payoff won’t cut it, but I’m sure there is a ton of good material in any shoot – hassling with customs, competion between camaramen for the money shot, dealing with the interpersonal stuff that sometimes comes with boredom, bugs, etc. My guess is that the folks running the cameras, schlepping the bags, making the phone calls, may not be as telegenic as our host – good – maybe we’ll even get to see a woman in the woods occasionally.

Animal Planet – you can contact me by clicking the envelope icon on the top right of the page >grin<.

The genre where the fourth wall has alway driven me crazy are climbing shows. OK – I accept that you are way the heck up on the side of the Trango Towers or sumpin’, but who is holding the camera? Are they using the same climbing techniques? If so, isn’t that part of the story? If not, isn’t this a bit of a farce?

I wish I had a way to wrap this rant post up in a nice bow – I don’t – I’m off to run the dogs…

Abecedaria naturae

An interesting paper – The Republic of Codes – looks at artificicial languages, codes vs. ciphers, and the desire on the part of academics to find ways to communicate effectively in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War. I have to admit, some of this is a bit over my head – a semiotician, I’m not- but the general outline is very interesting, We meet our old friend John Wilkins and another key player in the Baroque Cycle, Gottfried Leibniz. Also making an appearance – Athanasius Kircher (aka The Last Man to Know Everything). There is a link to the Kircher Society in my blogroll.

Coincidentally, I’m reading a history of the Silk Road. The Nestorian Stele (mentioned in The Republic of Codes) pops up there in the context of religious and cultural flows along the trade route.