Previous “Best Of” posts

Strength in the Face of Evil

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I stood at the Boston Marathon finish line yesterday. It was just past midnight, and my girlfriend and I had just completed the Midnight Marathon, a playful group bike ride which tracks the marathon’s route on its 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Copley Square. The official race had yet to start, but the viewing stands were already in place and Boylston Street was partially shut down. In just a few hours, thousands of runners and spectators would fill the area to share in the joy of completing one of humanity’s most difficult athletic challenges. For now, however, the street was barren. The contrast was striking, leading me to snap a blurry picture of a then-desolate finish line:

The Finish Line, before the race had begunThe Boston Marathon Finish Line

This place is now a crime scene. Mere hours after this photograph was taken, some twisted individual or group decided to injure and kill innocent men, women, and children by setting off bombs at the end of one of the world’s most famous running events. No one has yet claimed responsibility, but very little will change if they do. There can be no real logic or reason behind such a heinous action.

But at the time, the hellishness was still to come for our city. And so having finished our own race, we slowly pedaled back home to Cambridge. As we did, we were delighted to come upon the work of some enterprising MIT students. They’d turned the Boston-facing side of the campus’s Building 54 into a giant game board, upon which a massive-scale game of Tetris was being played.

MITris in Action
MITris in Action

After first seeing the game from across the river, we biked closer to check it out. I took a turn at the controls and enjoyed a bigger-than-life version of a game so many know and love. I smiled as I played, and even more as I thought about the spirit of the whole goofy endeavor: this was quintessentially Boston. That night, I went to bed both tired and happy.

Today, I wake to somberness, as we deal with the aftermath of a senseless attack. For now, fear and anger have replaced whimsy and good humor in our town. The violence was perpetrated on a holiday we in Massachusetts celebrate as Patriots’ Day, a day which commemorates the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775. That day began with the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere and the subsequent Battles of Lexington and Concord which marked the start of armed conflict against the British. Just as they must have been more than two centuries past, people today are frightened and concerned. But now, just as it was 238 years ago, Boston is defiant.

Yesterday, only a few hours after the explosions that rocked our city, Building 54 was again hacked by folks at MIT. This time, the massive architectural canvas was used to spread a message of pride, of strength, and of resilience. Looking across the Charles River last night, this was the view from the cradle of modern America:

Building 54 Showing Old Glory

Boston stands strong.

Parenthetical Ess

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

This piece was written and posted to the web for you live via satellite, from a jumbo jet winging its way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Path of the plane
Airplane Not to Scale

The Internet was accessible thanks to Lufthansa’s FlyNet, which provides pretty incredible coverage.

Coverage Map
FlyNet’s Coverage Map

You may notice that China is not covered. This is solely a political decision to manually deactivate the service while in Chinese airspace, pending the Chinese government’s decision on approving of the service. I’m sure that decision is coming any decade now.

The website for FlyNet is rather amusing, offering a half dozen stories of how the service might be used, because apparently people need to be convinced that having access to the Internet is a good thing. Perhaps you’ll use Flynet to watch a downloaded video message by staring at the back of your iPhone and pointing its screen away from you, like Sandra L.:

Picture of a woman watching video by staring at the back of her iPhone
Later, we see the beginnings of some rather hideous and duckfaced sexting.

Maybe you’ll find yourself in Josephine A.’s shoes, with FlyNet showing you that your daughter just eloped:

Picture received on phone of the newly married couple
Sorry you had to find out this way, but at least there’s a barf bag close at hand.

Or like the eminently relatable Michael O., you might use your FlyNet connection to pick out the magazine cover shot for your upcoming puff piece in New Manager magazine:

Picture of a fake publication called New Manager Magazine
Subscriptions are limited to three months, after which you’ll receive Manager magazine for the next 57 months. At that time, your subscription will again be transitioned automatically, this time to Veteran Manager magazine.

Anyhow, through the wonders of modern technology, I was able to trade seven thousand otherwise useless airline miles for the ability to hop online. I could browse the web, check email, chat with colleagues, and even keep up with the Red Sox home opener via the mobile version of their site. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a pitcher’s duel is actually not a lot of fun to watch via a text feed. As such, I had a bit of time to think, and I realized something.

We can fly a plane halfway around the world.

We can launch a series of satellites to orbit the planet.

We can use those satellites to access the Internet as that plane flies hundreds of miles per hour.

No parenthesis is needed

And yet’s pitch-by-pitch still isn’t smart enough to know it doesn’t need a parenthetical “(s)” at the end of the word “out” when there are no runners on base!

Amazon AutoRip 

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Amazon has just announced a new feature called AutoRip, which instantly provides folks with a free digital copy of an album when they buy the physical CD from Amazon. It’s a neat idea, but given the ease with which customers can create their own digital files, it seems that AutoRip’s overall utility is minor. Further, for music buyers who’ve moved to purchasing nothing but digital files, the whole thing is rather moot.

Still, AutoRip is painfully close to something I’ve found myself pining for since starting to use a Kindle e-reader: free Kindle copies of purchased physical books. Unlike CDs, there’s no easy way for book purchasers to create their own digital copy, so an “AutoRip for Books” would provide much more benefit. Someday, perhaps.

Android Issue #38538

Friday, January 4th, 2013

For almost three months, Google’s Android project has had a very peculiar bug open in its tracker. The bug’s name alone commands attention:

Google Now, if asked “What is a Giraffe?”, finishes the description with “he now praises the iPad”

If you’re unaware, Google Now is a personal assistant app for Android devices which aids in searching via voice. It takes in spoken commands, and speaks back results1. This bug is thus stating that when the app is asked to define the precise nature of a giraffe, a completely random phrase is tossed into the mix. That’s sure to rank near the top of any list of “most bizarre bugs”, and it’s likely to be ignored altogether due to its sheer preposterousness.

And yet, this report is entirely true. It seems Google’s text-to-speech tool has caught itself a case of the full-blown crazies, corrupting phrases containing a dee sound followed by the word “with”. If you want to play along at home, you can witness the madness yourself even without an Android device, albeit for a no-doubt-extremely-limited-time. Just use the Google Translate tool, along with a phrase like “end with”, to hear Google go completely bananas and start spouting nonsense.

Here’s a screenshot of just how the audio can be obtained, with a highlight on the button to click2:

It really did happen.
Create your own embarrassing story!

It’s almost certain that things like this will stop working soon, so here’s an archived recording for future amusement:

So, just what in the hell is going on here? Are we all suffering from an exceedingly specific mass auditory hallucination? Has Google’s text-to-speech tool been hacked, or worse, haunted, possibly by the pettily vengeful ghost of Steve Jobs? Stop reading here if you wish to preserve the mystery and wonder of it all.

Unfortunately, the answer is a bit more mundane. Google’s tool is simply broken, and providing some bum data. It appears that the phrase “he now praises the iPad” originates from this article:

Describing the negotiations last spring as being filled with “so much drama,” he now praises the iPad.

Indeed, if the phrase “filled with” is used, the entire quote is inserted, including the “so much drama” bit. It’s likely that some human error is causing this audio snippet to be incorrectly used alongside some instances of the word “with”. Perhaps we’ll get a more specific explanation of the issue in the future. For now, however, use your awareness of this bug to shock and amaze your friends while you still can.


  1. Similar to Apple’s much-ballyhooed Siri, previously covered here and here. ↩︎

  2. The issue seems to be heard exclusively with the female American English voice. It appears you can guarantee that Google Translate will use this voice by using the Mexican domain. ↩︎

Who Wants to Go for a Carefully Measured Walk? 

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

The headline proclaimed:

  • Fujitsu preps ‘world’s first’ cloud-ready pedometer for dogs

Dog Model

Quietly, I whispered “Finally!”.

Limited-Time Offer

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Long-time One Foot Tsunami readers know that when mailing a package, stamps may well be optional. Nevertheless, when the beleaguered US Postal Service shows a sample of a stamp on their site or in their branches, they mar some part of it to prevent counterfeiting. For example, here’s an image of their $1 Wisdom stamp:

Wisdom Sample

With the $1 mark crossed out, any possible attempt to rip off the post office is completely foiled, because it would require some truly dark sorcery to remove that strike-thru. What about Forever stamps1, however? There, the USPS has opted to cross off the word “Forever” for security purposes. That leads to a disturbing bit of incongruity with their “Four Flags” set2:

Four Flags Sample

America: While supplies last?


  1. Such as last year’s still-ridiculous faux Statue of Liberty stamp. ↩︎

  2. Here’s a screenshot of the USPS page. ↩︎


Monday, October 15th, 2012

You may have seen recently, as it just emerged from a period of dormancy to become a gay dating website. To put it mildly, this is not likely to be what football fans are looking for when they punch in the address. Whether the current owners of the domain are looking to pressure Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys into paying for the domain or not, it is an amusing misdirect, and it’s definitely comical for one of the world’s most valuable teams to have failed to secure the domain for their name.

What’s been less well-covered is just how they failed to do so. The Dallas Cowboys had a chance to procure the name back in 2007, but reportedly blew it due to a misunderstanding in the bidding process.

Despite being declared the most valuable team in the world, Jones and his organization was bucked off the domain bronco in 2007 because of a price misunderstanding during an auction for the domain.DomainNameNews reports a Dallas Cowboys representative had the winning bid of “275″ in an auction for the domain in October 2007. But unknown to the winning bidder, that bid was in thousands and not singles.

The Cowboys balked at the high price tag and the domain was put up for auction again, which was won by a group led by Eric Rice for $370,000, DomainNameNews also reported.

Relevant: The Cowboys’ new stadium cost somewhere north of a billion dollars.

Dare Mighty Things

Monday, August 6th, 2012

Last night, the United States (and all of humanity) landed a rover known as Curiosity on the planet Mars. We’ve managed to place a rover on Mars three times before, but never in such incredible fashion. The maneuvers performed on this mission read like the stuff of fantasy, or the plot of an episode of MacGyver. If you missed it last week, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory put together a fantastic video called Seven Minutes of Terror showing exactly how Curiosity’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) worked.1

Watching that video is well, well worth five minutes, but here’s a summary of the steps it took to get Curiosity from above Mars down to its surface.

  • Eight months after being launched from Earth, Curiosity entered Mars’ atmosphere. Its heat shield withstood temperatures of as much as 2000 degrees Celsius while slowing from 13,000 miles per hour.

  • As the craft was slowed by the atmosphere, it was also self-guiding towards a very specific landing spot, constantly adjusting course to get close.

  • When Curiosity got down to 1000 mph, a supersonic parachute was deployed to continue slowing the descent.

  • After the parachute was deployed, the heat shield needed to be fired away so that the radar system could scan the ground for its landing.

  • With its parachute only capable of slowing the craft to about 200 mph, Curiosity needed to cut it off for the next stage. Rockets, thrusting away from Mars, were then used to slow the descent further and divert away from the parachute.

  • The rockets next lowered the rover towards the surface. However, due to the dust this descent stage could kick up, the rocket engines could not get too close to the surface itself. How do you put a rover on the ground if you can’t set down on it?

  • Why not use a sky crane? Yes, while the descent stage was hovering above Mars, it lowered Curiosity down on a tether.

  • Finally, once the rover was on the ground, the descent stage cut itself from Curiosity and flew away for a planned crash landing safely away from Curiosity.2

So that’s how you land a one-ton, car-sized, nuclear-powered rover on a planet 150 million miles away. And oh, one other thing? Because of the 28 minute round-trip for radio signals between Mars and Earth, this all had to be done automatically, with no human intervention whatsoever. We could only sit back and wait to hear word of our success or the deafening silence which would indicate failure. Guided entry, parachute descent, powered descent, and an honest-to-goodness hovering sky crane, all pre-programmed to be able to handle anything an inhospitable foreign planet could throw at us. And we pulled it off.

Some might question why we should explore space, particularly when we are beset by so many terrestrial problems. Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger provides a wonderful response with a letter penned 42 years ago. The simple answer is that research and discovery are two of the greatest tools we have to solve problems, whether those problems are hundreds of millions of miles away or right here on Earth. It’s impossible to know what benefits we’ll reap from this incredible mission, but history tells us they will be great and they will be plentiful.

Many pictures will be received from Mars in the coming days, weeks, and months. They’ll come in color, from higher-quality cameras yet to be deployed. However, I think this prosaic shot of Curiosity’s shadow, one of the very first images it sent back, has a beauty all its own.

Curiosity on the surface

Look at what we can do.


  1. That video is archived here. It also contains the inspiration for the title of this post, which originates in an FDR speech entitled “The Strenuous Life”. ↩︎

  2. While it’s silly to anthropomorphize machinery, this still strikes me as a sad but noble death. ↩︎

Tampa Bay’s Fauxback Uniform

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Major League Baseball has a long history, one which dates back almost 150 years. In tribute to that history, teams have occasionally worn throwback uniforms from their own storied pasts. For example, the 2012 Houston Astros can be seen below, wearing the team’s amazing original Colt .45s uniform from 1962 in commemoration of their fiftieth anniversary.

Colt .45s Throwback Jersey
Helluva Uniform

It’s a great tradition, even if it’s also yet another way for teams to sell overpriced merchandise. But what is a lowly expansion team, one with just fifteen years of history, to do? Apparently, for the Tampa Bay Rays, the answer was not “wait until we have some real history”. Instead, the team opted to create a godawful fake throwback uniform. Here’s manager Joe Maddon “modeling”:

The Rays Godawful Fauxback Uniform

In previous Turn Back The Clock games, Tampa Bay wore uniforms from other Florida teams of the past, like the Tampa Tarpons or St. Pete Pelicans. They’ve even brought back the original 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays uniform:

The Devil Rays Original Uniform
You deserved better, Mr. Boggs.

Ugly though that was, at least it was authentic. The fauxback seen above, however, is entirely a work of fiction. The organization stated that the uniforms were designed to look like what the team would have worn in 1979, and that they were inspired by the late 70s Padres uniform:

The 1978 Padres Uniform
So very 70s

It seems that “inspired by” is a euphemism for “blatantly ripped off from”, which means that in addition to being phony, the Rays’ fashion fiasco isn’t even original. Perhaps the only custom touch is the design in the center of the “a” (as well as the “b” on the hat), which appears to be a reference to the roof of Tropicana Field, the Rays home park.

Tropicana Field From Above
Tropicana Field from above; Inset: The counterfeit Rays logo
[Photo credit: USRaven]

That would be a nice touch, but for the fact that the Trop is one of the worst stadiums in the bigs. Construction on it started way back in 1986, before St. Petersburg even had a team, and it ultimately didn’t attract a Major League team until the Rays started playing there in 1998. Its fixed dome is ringed by four catwalks which can be hit by batted balls, resulting in some truly bizarre ground rules. The attempt to do something creative is respectable, but reminding folks that you play baseball in a venue that can best be described as a poorly-lit Sam’s Club is probably not the way to go.

In the end though, there is some good news, as karma may just be real. While wearing their phony throwbacks on Saturday night, the Rays were handed a 6-2 loss by the Detroit Tigers.

The MagSafe to MagSafe 2 Adapter

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

The Adapter
This is the MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter.

The Adapter, size comparison
This is the MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter, shown next to an oversized novelty quarter for size comparison.

The Adapter on its card
This is the MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter, attached to a piece of card stock, as it shipped.

The Adapter and its box
This is the MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter attached to a piece of card stock, along with the box it came in, and the booklets of information which accompanied it.

The Adapter, its box, and the card it rode in on.
This is the MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter attached to a piece of card stock, along with the box it came in, the booklets of information which accompanied it, and the piece of cardboard to which that box was attached (and to which a packing slip is still attached).

The Adapter, its box, the card it rode in on, and the box which contained it all.
This is the MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter attached to a piece of card stock, along with the box it came in, the booklets of information which accompanied it, the piece of cardboard to which that box was attached (and to which a packing slip is still attached), and the box in which all that arrived.

The AdapterFor the sake of completeness, this is the MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter attached to a piece of card stock, along with the box it came in, the booklets of information which accompanied it, the piece of cardboard to which that box was attached (and to which a packing slip is still attached), the box in which all that arrived, and the not-one-but-two missed delivery slips.

The Adapter
Not pictured: The kitchen sink