First, a bit of news that depresses the heck out of me: my main computer died. I developed some kind of hardware issue that locked it up to the point where I had to unplug it to turn it off, and nothing I have done since will turn it back on again, or even allow BIOS to run. I was in the middle of Second Life, which none of my other computers are powerful enough to support… my Avatar may be dancing there still. Nor can I watch anything on Streaming Netflix (or streaming anything else), I have lost all my iPhone apps, email is evaporated, and worst of all, all the blog entries I was building in advance are gone. I commit initial surgery to the box to try to get it back tomorrow and am already exploring replacement choices, but in the meantime bare with me if these entries are not up to my usual standard.

I am happy to report that Tremors the Complete Series is finally being released on disk. The four movies in the franchise have been available forever, but until now your only option for the TV series was to watch full episodes online. This quirky little TV show was politically incorrect and better for it, and I am looking forward to adding it to the permanent collection.

Justin Time is a direct-to-video release targeted at tweens that could be enjoyable for the right age group. At least I hope it is targeted at tweens. Another direct contender is the Second Best Science Fiction Movie Ever Made, for obvious reasons.

Of the American animations coming out this week, Planet 51 is a very fun film. It didn’t do well with the critics, mostly because we have all seen it before (except the other times humans were the ones living in the 1950s with serious paranoia), but it has quality 3D animation, first class voiceover work, and enough of a twist on the type to be worth your time.

On the Anime front, the total rebuild Evangelion 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone takes the first six episodes of the original series and retells them in feature film format. All of the classic Mecha goodness is here; if you don’t know NERV, this is a great place to start.

Another favorite Anime series, Your Under Arrest, has one more volume available in the US: You’re Under Arrest: Fast & Furious Collection 1. There has never been anything subtle about this series, and they are not starting now. And while a cop show might not be what you expected to hear about from a Sci-Fi site, like Tank Police this one has some serious science fiction aspects (although more like James Bond movies rather than the more obvious genre forms).

Then there is the classic GaoGaiGar for all the Giant Robo fans; it predates many of the series that helped create the modern concept of mechanized warcraft worshiped as gods, and had a formative effect on a lot of them.

I rarely post about documentaries here, but one worth mentioning is Hisashi Tenmyouya: Samurai Nouveau. It tells the story of a graphics designer turned full-tilt artist, and is part of the Viz New People Artist series of documentaries. To get an idea of just how well he can mix the traditional with the modern, visit his home page and see what he has done.

I would have to include Something unknown is doing we don’t know what, another documentary, for the fantasy they pursue if nothing else. And then include it again because there are very few films based on a quote by Sir Arthur Eddington, even if the movie has nothing to do with anything the world-class scientist was referring to. Remember, this was the man who said We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about ‘and’. While he got a lot of things wrong, and some of his best quotes have been stolen by mystics and charlatans (not at all the same thing), his best work was explaining subtle differences in the nature of reality. For a physicist, there is no higher calling.

I came across an article on the Null Set about Making Anime Personas for Firefox, with some excellent examples (that set is listed under Steelbound). I also found rather nice collections by Songbird, Bellas, Kawaii Mooru, and Fleur, to name just a few. I also found huge selections of other science fiction themes, but these should give you the idea.

Building your own seems pretty simple and straightforward; the short version is you create an image each for the top and the bottom of the browser, both 3000 pixels wide, with the top at 200 pixels tall and the bottom 100 pixels. For slightly more detailed information, check the Persona Create and Test page. These are too much fun; I think the trick is building ones that look good but don’t interfere too much with the tool bars. If you need to install the personas Add-on, you will find it here.

Just a few fun videos, based on modifying observable reality in non-standard ways. The key for both of these is only partly to use the latest evolution in communications and data processing to achieve the desired result. Having the latest tech is good, but what is critical is using that tech in ways never before tried to go for desired results nobody else thought of before. The embarrassing part is how obvious it all looks once you finally see it in action; why didn’t any of us think of that before?

The first is the MIT FlyFire Project, which lives at the Senseable City Lab site. Now that sensors of all types, from static units like traffic cams and mobile units like cell phones are ubiquitous, privacy is right out the window; but new ways of gathering, displaying, and using data are in our hands. The helicopter-optics project itself combines the emergent behavior of the swarm of drones interacting with the environment with the top-down control imposed by the computer orchestrating the display patterns. Learning to program this combination will be challenging but most worthwhile.

The second video is a glimpse at how David Byrne approaches ways to share an appreciation of music. In this instance, by converting an entire building into a musical instrument, and allowing interested parties to sit at the keyboard and play the building. The subtle layer below that one is the fact that every child or adult who sits at a control panel and wrings music (no mater how pitiful) out of a multi-story structure will never again think of it as a box they might be inside of, or as part of the background. From then on, every building they see will become an instrument they might play, which means an interconnected whole that can be manipulated to achieve a desired result. The more people that have that epiphany, the more minds there are working to build our future; and that is a GOOD thing, trust me on this.

This one was too much fun, so I had to include it here. The Embed-permitted version is courtesy of Veoh: this is Kirsten Dunst doing a remake of the classic Vapors song Turning Japanese. This one was even filmed in Akihabara! Strangely enough, this video was put together as part of a museum exhibit in London. For some reason the video seems to be blocked on the jstrider.net server, but it plays just fine on JStrider.Info, or you can watch it on YouTube if you are so inclined.


Watch Kirsten Dunst “Turning Japanese” in Music  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

I love Steampunk, but mostly it seems to be a European kind of thing, although the US had a major hand to play in it between Edison and Tesla. But did you know Japan had its own real-life Steampunk roots, just like the western cultures? I am not referring to the modern Steampunk instances, like the many Animes (Fullmetal Alchemist, Last Exile, and Steamboy being my personal favorite examples). But the roots of Steampunk, the technology that Could Have Been, had things gone a bit different (and yes, that is Paratime again). The best examples of true Japanese Steampunk I have found so far are in the realm of Karakuri; 16th through 18th century Japanese robots.

For a basic introduction to the topic I can think of no better example than I, Karakuri, a wonderful short explanation of both the concept (dolls that would surprise/trick observers by preforming human actions, such as serving tea, while hiding the mechanical bits that allowed them to do so; the humans would suspect an animating spirit, rather than a device, back in those days) and the history of the technology (watches imported by the Portuguese in the 1500’s, reverse engineered and by the early 1600’s the Edo period craftspeople had developed them into mechanical wonders to rival any cuckoo clock Switzerland ever dreamed up). These were developed completely independently of the similar proto-robots in Europe, and had a different style and sensibility even if the mechanical functionality was the same.

The Japan Foundation and MIT Singapore have both done live presentations on Karakuri in the last few years. KaraKuri Info is another great source of information on the background and history of this unique robot lineage, which is enjoying a renewed interest by modern robot inventors in Japan.

If you want to build your own, you don’t have to start from scratch. You can pick up a kit for the Karakuri Gakken tea serving doll from Maker Shed or other similar outlets, and the detailed instructions at Make Zine can guide you through the steps needed to create one of your own. There are kits for a few of the others, of which the most amazing (and expensive) may be the Bow Shooting Boy doll, but they may no longer be available.

While these are dolls, in the sense of being something made out of wood or plastic that looks like a person, they are also actual robots. Hard to believe because there are no computer chips in the device? True, but the logic is built in at the mechanical level, allowing them If/Then/Else choices even without the silicon chips. That means they can be programmed just like any other robots to follow out a sequence of instructions, with any given action only taken when the preset conditions are met (such as turning around and heading back to the tea pot when the weight of an empty tea cup is placed on its tray). The main difference comes when you want to reprogram it; instead of typing or uploading a new sequence of instructions, the gears, shafts, and spindles have to be changed for a set that processes the new logic and decision tree. Brutal but true: reprogramming means rebuilding!

If you have a hard time imagining how that works, the simplest example to explain the process comes from Europe of the same era; the music box. In 1600 Geneva or Paris, if you wanted your portable music player to play a different song, you put a different metal cylinder into it and wound the spring. As the spring unwound the bumps sticking out of the cylinder pushed and released against the differently tuned metal tongues, playing a pre-programed sequence of tones. While the music box did not have mechanical logic circuits built in (at least not until you got up to the ones installed in church towers), it did go through a prerecorded sequence of instructions to create a desired result without needing human supervision. Thus Automation was born.

There are also some inexpensive paper variations available, if you are trying to interest your young child in moving mechanicals, like the Karakuri Teeter Totter Robot or the Smoking Robot. These are not actual robots, and have no logic built in, but they are entertaining psudo-automatons that move when you crank the handle and demonstrate some basic principles of mechanical animation.



Just for comparison, some European Robots from the same time frame


Out of all the online Advent Calendars this holiday season, two of them have been outstanding. I didn’t know what an Advent Calendar was when I stumbled onto the first site, and by then I had missed the first ten days or so of the offerings. Rest assured that next year I will be searching for them in early November, and post a list of the best ones I find Thanksgiving weekend, so we can all be ready come 1Dec2010.

The first is the AppVent Calendar, a project put together by Blacksmith Games. Starting on December 1st, each day they made one to three of their IPhone/IPod games available for free, and several of them were quite impressive. Most of the games offered for free for one day were also offered for dirt cheap ($.99 for a normally $3 piece of software, on average) for the remainder of Advent.

The other one that gave me useful presents was the WP Engineer’s amazing offering, where each day the tech-savvy team handed out another way for you to rebuild your WordPress driven web site into a true powerhouse. Each entry in this arsenal is a small bit of code, usually in the 5 to 25 lines category, but sometimes as simple as using the Custom Fields entry in the Query Post function to sort entries in a way that would normally take you some development time (as a single example).

I am pretty sure their goal was to offer a VAR (Value Added Resource) to their site in order to attract another one or three hundred potential customers. I am also pretty sure they added a lot more visitors to their web site than they were expecting, and even if most of the new additions do not end up being paying customers today, it will be a good thing for them in the long run. Congratulations to WP Engineers on creating my personal favorite holiday site this year!