How hunting is driving "evolution" in reverse#

Researchers describe what's happening as none other than the selection process that Darwin made famous: the fittest of a species survive to reproduce and pass along their traits to succeeding generations, while the traits of the unfit gradually disappear. Selective hunting—picking out individuals with the best horns or antlers, or the largest piece of hide—works in reverse: the evolutionary loser is not the small and defenseless, but the biggest and best-equipped to win mates or fend off attackers.

Review of Singularity Summit 2008#

A great roundup to be sure, but if you keep your finger on the pulse of this sort of thing, you likely won't learn too much.

This year the summit was literally down the street from me, but I couldn't bring myself to cough up the $500 price of admission.

The Human Marvels#

J. Tithonus Pednaud herein presents for your edification and enlightenment a curious collection of human marvels. These portent and exceptionally unique human beings stand as uplifting testaments to human spirit and serve as inspiring examples of human tenacity.

The Four Horsemen#

This is a two-hour (hour two), unmoderated discussion between Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, where they "trade stories of the public's reaction to their recent books, their unexpected successes, criticisms and common misrepresentations."

I could watch this sort of thing all day, every day.

Easiest way to give your Griffin Powermate system-wide control of iTunes

December 17, 2008

A few months ago I picked up what likely is my favorite computer peripheral of all time, the Griffin Powermate. It has a wonderful, solid feel to it, and looks great to boot (you can't tell me you don't like the glowing LED). I had one years ago, but had to give it up when I moved to an Intel-based Mac Pro; turns out there were serious issues with using the device on a MacTel machine (as in crash-your-computer serious). Once I got wind that those issues had been worked out, I quickly bought a new one (they're currently available through Amazon for $35).

I use the Powermate for two very simple tasks: 1) controlling system volume; and 2) pausing, playing and going to the next track in iTunes. Specifically, I change system volume by rotating the knob, pause/play by quickly pushing down on the knob, and next track by holding down the knob.

As an example of how useful this kind of setup can be, consider the situation where you're listening to music through iTunes while using your aggregator to catch up on the days' news. Let's say you come across a video you'd like to watch. In this circumstance you likely would switch to iTunes, pause the music, switch back to the browser, begin playing the video, and then futz with video and/or system volume. Now, consider my workflow using the Powermate: begin playing video, bop the knob once (to pause iTunes), and rotate the knob as necessary (to adjust system volume). This of course is just one specific example, but just think for a second about how often you pause your music (e.g., when your significant other yells for your attention from the other side of the house, or just comes into the room, or your phone rings, or you just want to focus intently on the sentence you're writing, etc.). In these situations, all you have to do with the Powermate is bop it. That's it.

What about when you start a Flash video that the provider has decided will default to full volume? Instead of struggling to find and click on the Flash app's volume control, all you have to do is give the Powermate a quick turn to the left. It's pure muscle memory.

Still these examples don't get into app-specific utilizations, which, as you might imagine, are virtually unlimited (e.g., paddle-based gaming (Arkanoid!), video scrubbing, etc.).

Alright, enough gushing, let's get to the point of this post. The configuration options for the device are nice, but the Mac OS X global controls are quite limited. In fact, there are just four to choose from: eject and system volume up, down and mute. Given these options, the use-case I described above obviously is impossible; however, you can assign keyboard shortcuts to an action by using "Send Key."1

Given this ability to map any keyboard shortcut to a Powermate action, all that was needed for my use-case was a system-wide hook into iTunes. After doing a bit of searching, I came across SizzlingKeys, the free version of which gave me exactly what I needed, namely the means to globally pause/play and next track iTunes with keyboard shortcuts (certainly there are many other apps that offer similar functionality). (UPDATE: I'm now using FastScripts instead of SizzlingKeys.) The hard part then was finding a key sequence I wasn't already using with Quicksilver or any other application. For those wondering (and who isn't?), I settled on shift-cmd-M for next track, and shift-control-space for play/pause.

Note that if you run into any problems with the actions not "taking" while in a certain application, simply highlight the defiant program in the "Applications" list of the Powermate preferences, right-click and choose "Remove [application]" (assuming, of course, you aren't using the Powermate to control some aspect of the application). The issue presents itself even if you've set every Powermate movement to "No Action" — deleting the delinquent programs from the applications list was the only way I could get the global stuff to work correctly.

  1. You can choose "increase volume" and "decrease volume" to control system-wide volume, but I prefer to use "Send Key," and map the actions to the dedicated volume keys on my keyboard, because this causes the semitransparent volume overlay to show.   


When you visit a web page that has compatible user scripts on, this extension will highlight the Greasemonkey icon in the status bar. Right click the Greasemonkey icon and choose the "X scripts available" item to see and install the scripts available for the current page.

Great idea.

Unborn baby uses Twitter to announce kicks to the world#

The Kickbee is a wearable device made of a stretchable band and embedded electronics and sensors. Piezo sensors are attached directly to the band, and transmit small but detectable voltages when triggered by movement underneath. An Arduino Mini microcontroller transmits the signals to an accompanying Java application wirelessly via Bluetooth.

The Java application receives the sensor values and analyzes them. When a kick event is detected, a Twitter message is posted via the Twitter API. I chose to use Twitter because it is easy to initiate an SMS message to any mobile phone when a kick is detected.

Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research#

Just as vision scientists study visual art and illusions to elucidate the workings of the visual system, so too can cognitive scientists study cognitive illusions to elucidate the underpinnings of cognition. Magic shows are a manifestation of accomplished magic performers' deep intuition for and understanding of human attention and awareness. By studying magicians and their techniques, neuroscientists can learn powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the laboratory.

This is a very interesting read, filled with scientific descriptions of how and why certain magic tricks work, but the details are just nerdy enough to probably not ruin any to-be-seen performances. For example, the following is an explanation of why a spoon seems flimsy when it's held horizontally and moved rapidly up and down:

The neural basis of this illusion lies in the fact that end-stopped neurons (that is, neurons that respond both to motion and to the terminations of a stimulus' edges, such as corners or the ends of lines) in the primary visual cortex (area V1) and the middle temporal visual area (area MT, also known as area V5) respond differently from non-end-stopped neurons to oscillating stimuli. This differential response results in an apparent spatial mislocalization between the ends of a stimulus and its centre, making a solid object look like it flexes in the middle.

Memories may be stored on your DNA#

[L]ong-term memories may be preserved by a process called DNA methylation — the addition of chemical caps called methyl groups onto our DNA.

BlackRapid R-Strap

November 30, 2008

A few weeks ago I noted that I had ordered an R-Strap (the RS-1) on the assumption that it would "immediately prove to be indispensable." My assumption was right.

Before I discuss how well it performed, it's worth pointing out that I was using it to haul a monster lens — the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM — which weighs in at ~3.5 pounds (with the tripod mount). I should also note that I was shooting in Santa Cruz, where it was 82° in the middle of November!

I know what you're thinking, you already have a strap and are reluctant to drop $50 on what looks to be just another strap. Understood. But, you have to realize that the obvious simplicity of this strap belies its practical genius. I won't bore you with a multi-paragraph discussion of how it works (you can see for yourself in the videos; briefly, the strap is worn over your shoulder, and the camera hangs upside-down near your hip and the small of your back), but instead will focus on why it works well.

I appreciate that a strap like this appeals strongly to those who carry two cameras at a time (i.e., you hold the presumably lighter setup in your hand, and then keep the heavier kit cocked and loaded on the R-Strap), but it also is great for people like me who rely on just a single camera.

The first thing I noticed was just how natural it felt to have the camera hanging at my hip and upside down. As previously mentioned, on this particular day I was shooting with the hefty 70-200mm lens; given its size, I attached the R-Strap to the lens' tripod mount, which allowed it to rest almost parallel to the ground. Very nice.

Despite the great weight of the lens, I quickly became comfortable — both physically and mentally — with the setup. Don't get me wrong, in the very beginning it took no small amount of courage to put a large amount of faith in the R-Strap's ability to hold the lens. That's not to say that I was worried about the build quality of the strap, but rather that I'm anal about my toys and all too aware of their cost. To that end, throughout the day I constantly checked the "Fasten R" mechanism to make sure it was tethered securely to the camera (it always was, but I'm sure, as with any screw-based system, enough movement could persuade the screw to start rotating counter-clockwise).

As the day wore on, I became increasingly comfortable with raising the camera to shoot, and then, when finished, just kind of "dropping" it against the bumper (causing it to rest exactly where it was before the shot). These motions actually are at the heart of why the strap is such a joy to use. Because of the way the connector glides along the strap (and because the camera hangs upside-down), going from not touching the camera to shooting is a quick, easy, and dare I say fun motion.

It was hard to over-appreciate that I was walking along the beach and not thinking about holding the camera or feeling it bounce against me, and all the while knowing that it was there and that I could call on it at a moment's notice.

The ability to put the camera "behind" you and just kind of forget about it is very liberating. For example, as I was walking along the main pier in Santa Cruz, I decided I wanted some fried calamari and a beer (truth be told, that decision was made long before I got in the car to drive to Santa Cruz). I was able to buy the food, eat it while walking around, and lean forward against the railing of the pier — all without ever having to think about whether the camera was going to hit something. OK, so that example may not blow your mind, but extrapolate the general idea to cover your use-case, and I think you'll start to understand the strap's convenience.

As useful as the strap is, there are a few trade-offs. The first is that the camera can no longer sit normally on a surface, because the "Fasten R" mechanism that links the strap to your camera simply won't allow for it. Given the velvet-glove treatment I afford all my gadgets, I don't feel too comfortable placing my equipment on surfaces at odd angles (did I really just string those words together?), and so I find this issue a bit annoying.

Another compromise you'll likely have to make is to keep your backpack-style camera bag at home. I realize that for some this is a deal breaker; indeed, when I first recognized the issue I questioned whether the strap was for me. When I really thought it about though, I was able to convince myself that I usually only use my camera bag when transporting gear between locations; it actually is rare for me to switch lenses when I'm out and about (usually because I just can't be bothered to do it), and so this is a concession I'm willing (and able) to make. Your mileage obviously may vary.

Finally, the R-Strap may prove to be incompatible with your tripod plate, and so you may have to remove it in order to use the strap. If your plate has a tripod mount, then you likely can use it without issue, but I probably would be weary of anything less secure (e.g., connecting the strap to a plate's D-ring, etc.).

In my case the good far outweighs the bad. I'm quite pleased with the strap and am very much looking forward to future improvements and modifications — I just can't see myself using anything else.