Monday, September 30, 2002

This robot is drunk.

I recently ran across ODE, an open source rigid body dynamics library. In addition to standard joint/hinge constraints (which even I can do), ODE supports collision and contact with friction (which I've never worked through).
It works pretty well, though colliding objects tend to interpenetrate noticeably (even though the docs say it uses "hard" contact constraints), and resting contact for stacked objects isn't very stable. Those are the hard problems, though, so I'm not really complaining.

Over the weekend, Anton and I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning playing around with ODE. One of its test programs has a little wheeled buggy that you can drive around, with a ramp you can drive over. Anton and I spent several hours hacking on that program--adding Anton's extensible scheme interpreter (to make it easy to build new environments), camera tracking, multiple buggies, and better driving controls. It's so much fun playing around with physically based systems. (Anton did most of the coding. I did most of the building and test driving.)

On the same website, we ran across animations from the Ph.D thesis of ODE's author. The thesis involves motion control training, and the animations show simulated robots learning to walk. I imagine we were just 3-in-the-morning-giddy, but Anton and I laughed ourselves sick watching the robots flail and twitch. 'Course, we also laughed ourselves sick whenever the buggy in the test program flipped onto its roof, so I think our sense of humor is suspect.

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Mobile Couch Potato

[Posted by Kevin:]

I am very, very lazy. I'm sitting here on my couch reading MonkeySpeak and posting a message using my Ipaq.

I bought a Belkin USB Bluetooth transceiver last week and after several days of struggling I finally managed to get it to work with my satellite internet connection. This means that as long as I'm within 30 meters of my computer I can browse the web, check email, and stream Fat Boy Slim's video of Christopher Walken dancing - over a satellite, over Bluetooth, to my couch - on my IPAQ... albeit on a tiny screen.

By the way, tdl deserves a huge congratulations because MonkeySpeak is one of the very few pages that work perfectly on a tiny screen.

Disclaimer: While the above actually took place, I was unable to actually submit the above written text. When I hit submit on my IPAQ, nothing happened. I tried several times with several variations on the "press the submit button", but each time the button pressed, and sprung back up with no result. In the end I had to copy/paste the text and submit it using a workstation version of IE. So while this post was written on Monkeyspeak on my Ipaq, it was not submitted there.

Addendum: I felt compelled to explain why this is important. Bluetooth can in many ways be seen as the little brother to Wi-Fi when it comes to networking. More correctly it is essentially wireless USB. Seeing as I was previously ranting about not having any bluetooth devices to connect my Ipaq to, I am very happy to see the forest grow more trees.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

My DSL is going to be sore in the morning.

Today's Slashdot article on pay-for-download music sites prompted me to check out emusic for the first time in a while. (Yes, I know the article was probably written specifically to dupe suckers like me. I'm comfortable with that.) I was surprised to find that, as the article suggests, emusic really does have a non-trivial inventory, unlimited downloads, and completely DRM-unencumbered mp3 files.

They do lack the major pop artists, though I'm willing to consider that a feature. Their techno selection isn't great, but their jazz and classical inventories make up for it (if you're into that sort of thing). In general, there's a lot of potential for exploration, if you're not hoping to stock up on specific bands you already know.

I tend to agree with the anti-DRM mantra, "Music companies are dinosaurs, and instead of fighting the Internet with legislation, they should embrace it with new business models." Even so, I haven't really taken part in any "new business models." Most of my music dollars go to the CD section of Borders, of all places.

Thus, today, I decided to Walk the proverbial Walk, and subscribed to emusic. My decision was clinched when I realized they carry a decent subset of the works of They Might Be Giants. Sure, I already own all their music, so it doesn't do me much good. But that's not the point. If the site carries the best Awkward Geek Rock band in all of Brooklyn, it's gotta be good, right?

Saturday, September 21, 2002

The snozzberries taste like snozzberries!

After much hemming and hawing, I finally broke down and bought a cell phone. It works great, and the calling plan (through AT&T) is decent. At last, I have an excuse to mutter into my palm in public!

Like many mobile phone models, it has a removable faceplate which can be replaced with even more gaudy faceplates. On a whim, today I checked out several sites that sell compatible faceplates. Among the many questionable styles I was surprised to find scented faceplates.


Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Smear the world.

Please allow me to state the obvious. Advertising is
monkey butts.

You know what I'm talking about. Baboon butts. In estrus, the females' colorful behinds swell grotesquely to attract the attention of the dim-witted males. Up to certain practical limits, bigger and more grotesque is better, if one hopes to stand out among all the other grotesquely swollen behinds a prospective male may be faced with.

Forgive the unpleasant analogy. (Well, I find it unpleasant. I don't know about you. You sicko.) My point is that advertising is a survival trait, a sexual mechanism with which companies compete against their peers. It is not, ultimately, for the benefit of consumers--though consumers sometimes benefit in the process (much like the aforementioned dim-witted males). Notably, though, if a consumer benefits in the process, that is the means, and not the end, of advertising. When advertising succeeds without ever benefitting a consumer, it's still successful advertising.

So what is spam? Allow me to delve into appropriately uglier metaphor. Spam is what you get when a dung beetle suddenly has the ability to smear the world with poo, in the hopes in attracting one or two interested mates, somewhere out there. From the beetle's point of view, this gets the job done, which is really all that matters. (Remember, if you're not a potential mate, the dung beetle doesn't care what you think of him. True for dung beetles, true for spammers.)

Why am I taking uninspired cheap shots at spammers? Because I recently discovered a new kind of spam. Well, I don't know if it's actually new, and maybe it's well-known in the right circles, but I've never heard anyone mention it.

To describe this form of spam, I first have to confess: I check my web page's access logs. Well, not the logs themselves. I run Webalizer, which chews up access logs and spits out little ego-serving charts and histograms. The most interesting bit is the list of referrers: pages which link to my page.

To be fair, I'm not alone in this. It's quite common for webmasters to watch their referrer logs closely. It's so common, in fact, that enterprising spammers have apparently turned this into a "targeted advertising" opportunity.

You see, the silly thing about referrer logs is that they can be faked. When a client (such as a web browser) connects to a web server, the client tells the server "how it got here", and the server stores that in its access logs. But the server just takes the client's word for it. Why would the client lie, after all?

Well, one reason to lie: if the webmaster is likely to visit "referring" pages out of curiosity, this gives you an opportunity to generate traffic to any site you want.
All you need to do is write a custom web crawler that always lies about "how it got here", mentioning in every case some special page of webmaster-targeted advertising. If you set the crawler loose on the web, you'll soon have thousands of webmasters visiting your site, expecting to see links to their pages, and instead finding your annoying ads.

I've seen at least one instance of this in my referrer logs. It's a site that offers to direct "active webmasters" to your website using a "proprietary technique" with "categorically no spam involved". It's clear that they're marketing (as well as using) the technique that I described above. (They also say it's patent pending. Heh.)

The interesting thing is how emphatic they are that they're not spamming, and that they're on the up-and-up. 'Course, they don't mention that their technique generates traffic by deceiving webmasters, or that it requires widespread violation of the HTTP spec.

It seems imprudent to post
the specific link here, since that would generate the very traffic that the spammers are seeking. But I felt compelled to mention the phenomenon. Has anybody else seen this? Is this a well-known thing? Is there a cool derogatory term for people who do this?

Friday, September 13, 2002

It's not that I don't <i>want</i> my kids to have superpowers...

A basic irrational fear of excess radiation has kept me from buying all sorts of cool devices, including mobile phones and wireless networking devices for my home. The fact that no adverse effects have been found in years of study doesn't help my fear much. It is an irrational fear, after all.

My friend Tom Duff says that, in that band that wireless devices operate, the wavelength is so large that the signal doesn't carry enough energy to cause chemical state changes in cells. Thus, it can't break chemical bonds or otherwise fiddle with any cellular state that matters. Thus, no danger to whatever body parts I might be paranoid about. (Phones spend their time in pants pockets, shirt pockets, and next to the head. All the vital organs! Yay!)

His logic makes sense to me, though I'm mostly taking his word for it. Just as I stopped glaring suspiciously at my microwave several years ago, I'm beginning to warm up to the idea of a mobile phone. Travelling last weekend reminded me how useful they are, and with a baby on the way, it would help for me to be more accessible in an emergency.

So today I was actually shopping around the web for mobile phones, checking out the various carriers, trying to make sense of the endless sea of calling plans. I'm this close to buying one, and I pause for a moment to read Slashdot, as I often do. Lo and behold, an article on wearable technology offhandedly mentions Levi's new anti-radiation pants for mobile phone users.

Rrrgh. Irrational fear returns. Dammit. I might as well just sprinkle goat's blood around all the electrical outlets in my apartment to keep the electricity demons out.

They're there, you know. In the walls. Watching.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Fine... I'll just take my OS and go Home

[Posted by Kevin:]

Ok, I was going ask this question specifically to tdl, but I figured the folks reading this log are intelligent people too, so I'll ask everyone. Also, as far as I know, this is the first question posted to MonkeySpeak (other than the sign question) so I'm being a pioneer.

Here's the deal, I run the graphics production department in a smallish (~35) company that makes theater equipment. We are strictly a Windows production house. Despite our size, we have very beefy system requirements. We focus on making scientific visualizations for our flag ship product - a full dome (think planetarium) hi-definition digital theater (think digital Omnimax). We use 3dsmax for 3d work, Digital Fusion for compositing and Photoshop for still image work. We have 6 terabytes of imagery and content that has to be accessible at all times, render on 30+ dedicated systems, and develop content on 5 dedicated workstations.

I'm getting more and more concerned about vanishing privacy and rights under MS and have always been looking to jump ship. However, until recently there has not been enough application support for film level modeling, compositing, and imaging, that could be had on non MS systems without gobs of cash or dedicated programmers.

The question is, if I want to switch to Linux / derivative (read non-MS), and want to do film compositing, high res 3d and high color depth imagery on Linux based systems, which platform/window interface is best? Should I have one flavor for the serving of our massive amounts of content and another for the production machines? What "big 3" apps can replace the MS based Photoshop, Digital Fusion, and 3ds max? Our rendering plates are 4k x 4k and a typical shot will have 10-30 layers.

Now remember, we cannot afford Shake (whose future is questionable on Linux anyway), nor can we hire a dedicated programmer to port tools for us to Linux. Film Gimp is obvious, possibly Maya, but where else? I’ve considered emulators, but quickly discounted those. More of a concern is the flavor of Linux and window manager. I want to have all the same functionality as a Win machine, without big brother. We can handle reasonable system maintenance, and the stations are pretty up to date with no exotic hardware. I will be trying the setup on my own studio machine to evaluate, so experimentation is acceptable.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

I have to count the meat. In color.

Woo Hoo! The Cheapass Games website says that a color version of Give Me the Brain should be released by the end of the year!

They say that a color version of Lord of the Fries is due out much sooner: this month, in fact. I'm not a big fan of that game, but I may end up buying the color version out of mindless Zombie-card-game enthusiasm.

¡Viva Santa Ana!

While in San Antonio for SIGGRAPH this year, Julian picked up a most excellent t-shirt. I am jealous.

It's alive! <i>Alive!</i> Well, sort of.

This seems to have been widely reported in July, but I didn't hear about it until this weekend. Earlier this year, scientists synthesized poliovirus "from scratch", using mail-order RNA base sequences and the poliovirus genome, which is available on the web. It behaves just like poliovirus, and can infect human cells, though not as effectively as the "natural" virus.

Awe and horror duke it out in my brain.

Bottle of ages.

Over the weekend, waiting for a connecting flight in Houston, I bought a bottle of Dasani mineral water. Later, on the plane, I noticed the expiration date printed on the bottle: "Jul 2103". A shelf life of 101 years! Up to now, the longest shelf life I'd seen on water was between three and five years; was this a typo, or did some huge advance in bottling occur recently?

Impressed, I showed the bottle to the passenger next to me. "Look when this water expires," I said.

She seemed unimpressed. "July 21, 2003. So what?"


Dangerous thingy ahead.

Near my house is a plain, yellow diamond street sign. It seems to be warning of something ahead, but in a vague, open-ended sort of way.

Anybody have any idea what this sign means?

Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Well, there's no backing out now.

[Posted by roberto:]

That's it. There's nothing I can do now, no time for anything else. It took quite some time to get here and during that time I've managed to hold together. I've eyed the competition and finally settled on something practical: a commitment has been made.

That's right, I bought a mp3 player.

An iPod to be exact, the 10GB model. I leave for my honeymoon on Monday and I needed a mp3 player to provide me with enough music for the two week trip. This narrowed the field greatly and, coupled with my size requirements, ruled out CD based players. I also took into consideration the various helpful reviews I found on the web. In the end I decided on an iPod. They come in the 5, 10 and 20GB models and my budget fell right in the middle. Well, sort of. They now make a newer 10GB model which comes with a remote control on the headphone cable, a carrying case and the scroll wheel is now touch sensitive (so it's not really much of a "wheel" now, but whatever). And oh, it's 1.5mm thinner. I, wanting to save $50, puchased the older model. Plus, I didn't realize what I ordered until it arrived.

So far my experience has been good. The player is so damned small and seems very well built. The screen is crisp and easy to read and the back-light is very bright. The firewire port is amazing - VERY quick. (The Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced album transferred in about 15-20 seconds.) The iPod automatically sorts your mp3s based on the information stored in the ID3 tags which means if everything has been encoded correctly you will be able to navigate your mp3s by Album, Artist and Genre. If your mp3s aren't encoded correctly they'll just be listed in the Songs folder making them impossible to find. To fix the ID3 tags in my current mp3s I'm using Tag&Rename which will take a directory of mp3s and search through for their correct tag info. Damn spiffy, I will be registering this software.

Navigation is easy and quick and they throw in a Breakout game for kicks. (Maybe they'll release an API so we can write our own games?) The support for the iPod is fantastic with numerous addict sites showing you the latest and greatest things you can do with your player.

All in all I think I made the right choice but the real test is how it fares on my upcoming vacation...

Sunday, September 1, 2002

Meat Locker Chic.

Last night we met some old college friends in North Beach for
dinner. Our intended venue couldn't accomodate our numbers, so one friend ran to an even fancier restaurant across the street. He asked if they had a table for nine, slipping the host a twenty in the process.

We were told they could seat us immediately, which was significant since all the restaurants in the neighborhood (including that one) had lines into the streets. Chuckling at the efficacy of the greased palm, we followed our host to the rear of the restaurant. However, our smugness turned to suspicion as we were led down one flight of stairs, then another. After the third flight, we joked about what dire fate must await us in the darkness below.

We arrived in a private room, almost two stories below street level. The walls were tile, like you'd find in a kitchen or shower, and the low ceiling was crisscrossed with pipes. A long, twisted iron candle holder lay on the table, and another lay on a brushed metal cabinet that ran the length of one wall. The candle holders were set in thick layers of old wax, like something out of a horror film.
One end of the room was partitioned off by hinged wrought iron screens, obscuring some source of mechanized hums and rattles.

All these details were lost on us at first, though, because of what hang from the ceiling. In a dense ring surrounding the table, on hooks along the overhead pipes, were maybe a hundred large cured pigs' legs. We had to duck slightly to get to the table, and once there, the legs filled our view.
Knobs of bone protruded from the torn ends, and cryptic stamps (encoding dates?) adorned wrinkled-gummy-brown-translucent skins. The air smelled musty and sour, like death in unholy chemical suspension.

This is their Prosciutto Room, and apparently they think of it as a feature. There's even a little picture on their website.

Now, I'm the first to admit I'm a mouth-breathing cretin when it comes to fine dining. But since when is meat-locker-chic-with-formaldehyde a desired theme for a meal?

I'm not complaining, really. We had a great time, and the food was good. I'm just wondering, now, what untold horrors would have greeted us if our friend had slipped the host a fifty instead of a twenty.