Saturday, October 20, 2007

October Roundup: Owls, UFOs, Ghosts

I've been busy on non-work related activities, for once!

Owls: Saw-whet migration is upon us. The local birders with Mass Audubon were caught off-guard by how many of the little owls are on the move south from Canada this year. Record numbers on some nights, and earlier than usual. These are tiny, adorable owls, who seem to like people and hang out for a bit. They even like being petted, which makes them a great ambassador for birdkind.

I put up a gallery of their extreme cuteness: Saw Whet Owl Banding in MA. I will be posting some video later. But for now, I require you to be amazed (this is not a baby bird):

Here's another set of photos (with a better macro lens) featuring yours truly holding one of these cutie pies.

And just to be slightly scientific, the site with the most data on the migration patterns and how to track these guys lives at Project Owlnet.


Last weekend I also went to a local UFO conference, hosted by Mass Mufon. There were two very interesting talks, one on crop circles and the other on the Shag Harbor Incident in Nova Scotia.

The crop circle presentation started quite strong, with a lot of data and images that can also be found on the website at BLT Research. My data analysis interest was piqued but then dismayed by claims of correlations as "proof." The speaker got less scientific and more, well, peculiar towards the end when she announced a bunch of other phenomena including the ghost of her dead brother caught on film at recent circles. I don't quite understand why the folks interested in paranormal end up mixing it all together so readily; one phenomenon probably has nothing to do with another!

The Shag Harbor UFO Crash Incident from 1967 was entertainingly recounted by Chris Styles, a good storyteller who had collected a lot of documents from the Canadian government (who are much happier to send things out on request than the US government). The most interesting sidebar was that a character named Maurice "Mace" Coffey was working as a parapsychologist investigating mysterious phenomena in the Canadian Air Force at the time of the "crash." He was the Fox Mulder of Canada. He's also editor of a collection of Maritime poetry and was later an important figure in the Northwest Territories (once helping find a downed plane, in which the survivor had lived only by cannibalism). I personally wanted to hear more about Mace, and maybe less about the RCMP.

Ghosts: I've received a few more stories about Windhouse, the haunted house in Scotland that I keep track of here. The essay is updated at the bottom with more photos from contributor Phil Mortimer (scary Photoshop work as shown below) and from another relative of a former inhabitant, Kate Bainbridge.

Phil Mortimer pics of Windhouse

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Search Engine Poetry Generator

I've always liked random poetry generators (I could dig up some of my favorites, but I'll save it for another day) -- so I wrote one based on an idea I saw on someone else's blog. (I admit their idea is more interesting, but I had a simple goal to start with: practice with SQL and PHP on my hosting server.)

My generator builds random "poetry" by stringing together keywords and keyphrases that hit my site from searches in the last month. (I'm afraid it's not a real-time feed from my logs, it's canned from the last month.)

Popular searches on my site: ghosts, Canada, and disorganized organizations. It makes for peculiar poetry, not good, but kind of fun. Victoria's Secret is definitely showing up more and more, too.

One of them:

alice in wonderland porn
  i need
  tivo patents

for me, illusion
   -- erin
Give it a try, or ten...

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Randy Pausch and Collaboration

I thought I had blogged about Randy Pausch's opening plenary talk at CHI in 2005, but apparently I didn't, and now I can't find his handout on teamwork. I know it's floating somewhere. But there are a couple of sites with notes: Usability News and the CHI 2005 conference website (the Conference on Human Computer Interaction, spelled CHI so it's pronouncable, hah).

I thought of his talk last week when I was giving a talk about design, stressing the difficulty and value in cross-disciplinary collaboration to an engineering company. (I've also been lurking on the Alice site wondering when the next version would come out, so this was timely!)

In his plenary, Randy had a bunch of great points about how hard teamwork between artists and developers is, particularly in our technocentric culture. Some of the points from the CHI summary:

  • Neither side can be in service of the other
  • A goal "above" either discipline really helps
  • Different disciplines have different values, moral and otherwise

It's a form of prejudice to assume that people who aren't technical aren't valuable during the design process. Despite being quite technical myself by design standards, I run into this pretty frequently at the places I work. Randy himself is an arrogant geek SOB (as he'd admit) but he has some ability to recognize and verbalize these issues, which means there's hope for others too -- if they're as smart as he is and capable of self-reflection. His students will probably do some great good in the world, after they get tired of the game industry.

Speaking of hope, Randy's dying of pancreatic cancer at 46; and his last lecture was televised here. He's surprisingly young and healthy, but he doesn't expect to live beyond a few months more. That's the world we've got, but it's still fun and funny, if you listen to Randy talk about being a kid and growing up to do the things he always wanted to do.

Recommended, especially the part on mentors. (Thanks for the link, Xiaoyu.)