Death of a Furby

I’ve always felt a weird sort of guilty glee at my role in the (temporary) psychological torture and murder of a poor, innocent Furby.

When I was growing up, our family had a few pets over the years. A bird when I was young (named Vogel, which is German for “bird”, in a rare moment of literalness in my family), then a cat, Filia (my mom’s), then another cat, George (my brother’s). Eventually, though, George left to live out the rest of his days in Fairbanks with my brother, and Filia died.

When Filia died, my mom decided that she didn’t want another flesh-and-blood pet, but still wanted something — so, mom and dad got a Furby. I’ve never been too sure just why or how this ended up being the choice, but so it was, and so they did. I’m sure I didn’t tease them at all about this. Not at all.

One summer, my parents took a trip down to Florida to visit my mom’s parents. Since their “pet” was more easily transported than earlier pets were, they decided to bring the Furby with them to show it to my grandparents. Unfortunately, in the midst of packing, the Furby was forgotten, and was left sitting on the dining room table. Once they got to Florida, unpacked, and realized their mistake, mom gave me a call to ask if I could send the Furby down to them.

“Really? You want me to mail the Furby?”

Yup. She did.

Being a dutiful and obedient son (as always, as I’m sure they’ll be happy to verify), I drove across town to their house, and found the Furby sitting patiently on the table.

Now, I’d never had a Furby. I knew a little bit about them, mostly through cultural osmosis, but this was my first time actually encountering one of these mysterious mogwai-like contraptions. I did know that they were motion-, sound-, and light-activated, though, so I tried to take precautions as I prepared the Furby for its journey.

I gently picked it up, and, moving as cautiously as possible, examined it to see if I could find an “off” switch. I assume that it must have had one somewhere, but if it did, I couldn’t find it. So I carefully wrapped a couple sheets of bubble wrap around the Furby, picked it up, slid it into a padded shipping envelope, sealed it up, and put it back down on the table.

And a high, muffled voice came from the envelope: “No light!”

Oh, dear. It’s awake.

“No light! Furby scared!”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

As I drove to the post office, the package on the seat next to me would chatter for a bit, fall silent, then wake up again as I hit a bump in the road or as the package slid slightly across the seat as I went around a turn.

Standing in line at the post office, I cradled the package gently in my arms. The Furby had been quiet for a while, and I was determined not to disturb its slumber. I reached the desk, gently put the envelope on the counter, and slid it across to the post office worker. “This needs to go to Florida.”

“No problem,” the attendent said, as she picked up the package and dropped it onto the scale.

“Furby scared! No light!” And the package wiggled a little bit as the Furby (assumedly) opened its eyes and frantically looked around its prison, wiggling its ears in panic.

The attendent raised her eyebrows and looked at me. “Um…it’s a Furby. It’s kind of my mom’s pet, and she wants to show it to her parents….” I trailed off, feeling foolish, as the muffled nonsense language of the Furby continued to come from the package.

I don’t remember anymore if she rolled her eyes or smirked — or both — but she did carefully attach a “FRAGILE” sticker to the outside of the envelope, along with however many stamps it took to ship a pound-and-a-half bundle of babbling furry automaton from Alaska to Florida. “Thanks,” I said, as she gently tossed the envelope into the outgoing bin, to the accompaniment of muffled “Wheeeeeee!” from the Furby. “No problem,” she said. “NEXT!”

As I left the post office and drove home, I couldn’t help but giggle to myself, over and over, as I pictured the poor, traumatized, blind Furby traveling across the country. Falling asleep in bins at one or another stop on the way, only to wake up as soon as it moved, crying out for light, for company, for comfort. At the poor post office workers and delivery people picking up an apparently innocent package, only to suddenly have it wiggle in their hands as a small voice cried out at them — “No light! Furby scared!”

The Furby did make it to Florida — however, mom confirmed that by the time it got there, its batteries were well and truly dead. Which, horrible as it seems, couldn’t help but launch me into another fit of guilty hilarity at the thought of the poor confused Furby, cocooned in bubble wrap, slowly expiring, expending its last, desperate reserves of energy on ever-quieter pleas for light and comfort.

I’m sure a new set of batteries worked their magic and revived the Furby to its usual happy chatterbox state. But I’ve always felt a weird sort of guilty glee at my role in the (temporary) psychological torture and murder of a poor, innocent Furby.

You’ve Got A Dirty Speech Synthesizer

An amusing little anecdote about Watson, the IBM supercomputer that was featured on Jeopardy, that might seem a little familiar to those of my friends who are parents.

An amusing little anecdote about Watson, the IBM supercomputer that was featured on Jeopardy, that might seem a little familiar to those of my friends who are parents:

Two years ago, Brown attempted to teach Watson the Urban Dictionary. The popular website contains definitions for terms ranging from Internet abbreviations like OMG, short for “Oh, my God,” to slang such as “hot mess.”

But Watson couldn’t distinguish between polite language and profanity — which the Urban Dictionary is full of. Watson picked up some bad habits from reading Wikipedia as well. In tests it even used the word “bullshit” in an answer to a researcher’s query.

Ultimately, Brown’s 35-person team developed a filter to keep Watson from swearing and scraped the Urban Dictionary from its memory.

Gee, seems like parenting would be a little easier (if less embarrassing–and, of course, amusing) if the solution was that easy for people!

(via Techdirt)

Sheldon Cooper’s Holographic Laptop

So I noticed something that amused me while watching Big Bang Theory the other night — apparently Sheldon has a holographic display on his laptop. The real-world explanation, of course, is the conceit of television’s visual language, but that’s not nearly as much fun to believe.

So I noticed something that amused me while watching Big Bang Theory the other night — apparently Sheldon has a holographic display on his laptop.

Obviously, some evidence in the form of screenshots is in order (all from Season 4, Episode 15, “The Benefactor Factor”, though I noticed this in Episode 14, “The Thespian Catalyst”, as well).

First up, a shot of Sheldon videoconferencing with Amy. This is mostly to set the scene, there’s nothing much to see here.

Big Bang Theory: Sheldon videoconferencing with Amy
Sheldon videoconferencing with Amy.

Next, a POV shot of what Sheldon sees while sitting directly in front of the computer.

Big Bang Theory: Sheldon's POV while videoconferencing with Amy
Sheldon’s POV while videoconferencing with Amy

Finally, here’s the shot that caught my eye — a shot over Sheldon’s shoulder.

Big Bang Theory: Looking over Sheldon's shoulder during the videoconference
Looking over Sheldon’s shoulder during the videoconference

Compare those last two shots. In the first shot, from Sheldon’s POV, we see Amy from directly ahead. She’s looking directly into the camera, as would be expected. However, in the second shot, she’s turned slightly to her right, giving us a slight profile shot (and while it doesn’t really translate in still shots, this isn’t because she was shaking her head or momentarily turned her head for some reason — she holds her head in this position through the entire shot).

The final impression is that as the camera switched from Sheldon’s POV to the over-the-shoulder shot, the perspective changed in our view of Amy, so that we see her from the same angle as if the two characters were speaking face-to-face rather than over video chat…but the only way that could happen would be if Sheldon’s computer had a holographic display!

With our normal, flat, non-holographic computer screens, of course, even when moving to the side of a computer screen, we would still see the other party looking straight into the camera…so we’d see the image something like this:

Big Bang Theory: What real-world laptops would display
What real-world laptops would display

Of course, in the visual language of television, that looks odd. We expect characters to look at each other, and we know that Sheldon and Amy are looking at each other, so the technically correct shot seems a little odd, as Amy is still looking directly out of the screen, apparently at the viewer instead of at Sheldon. The solution, then, is to have her turned slightly to her right when filming those sequences so it still appears that she’s looking directly at Sheldon, even though it gives the somewhat amusing impression that Sheldon has a laptop far more advanced than any currently on the market (as does Amy, as she’d have to have a laptop that can both film and broadcast 3D video chat streams) — but then, would we really expect anything less from Sheldon Cooper? ;)

I have no idea how often this technique is used on other shows, as this is one of the few times I’ve noticed it. In fact, the only other time I can think of that I noticed this technique being used was in Star Trek (TNG comes to mind, though I can be relatively sure that it was also done this way in DS9, VOY, and ENT). However, in the Star Trek universe, it’s known (at least to the more geeky technobabble obsessed fans) that the main display screen on the bridge of the Enterprise is a holographic display, and it’s not that far-fetched to believe that the smaller displays might be as well, so the conceit was never as jarring when I noticed it there.

So…there’s my ridiculously over-analyzed geek moment of the day.

Trolling Middle Earth

Where today, ‘troll’ is almost universally understood as the second of the above quoted definitions — a person solely out to provoke annoyance — I’ve always preferred the first definition. In _that_ sense, a properly constructed troll is something I’ve always respected.

First off, the gorgeous new trailer for the first part of The Hobbit has just been released:

Now, a slight digression. Back when the internet was new (and I’m not entirely exaggerating with that), the Jargon File was created as a living encyclopedia of words, phrases, terms, and events common to the geek communities of the day. In that document are the original definitions for the term “troll” as used in the electronic world.

  1. v.,n. [From the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban] To utter a posting on Usenet designed to attract predictable responses or flames; or, the post itself. Derives from the phrase “trolling for newbies” which in turn comes from mainstream “trolling”, a style of fishing in which one trails bait through a likely spot hoping for a bite. The well-constructed troll is a post that induces lots of newbies and flamers to make themselves look even more clueless than they already do, while subtly conveying to the more savvy and experienced that it is in fact a deliberate troll. If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it. See also YHBT.

  2. n. An individual who chronically trolls in sense 1; regularly posts specious arguments, flames or personal attacks to a newsgroup, discussion list, or in email for no other purpose than to annoy someone or disrupt a discussion. Trolls are recognizable by the fact that they have no real interest in learning about the topic at hand – they simply want to utter flame bait. Like the ugly creatures they are named after, they exhibit no redeeming characteristics, and as such, they are recognized as a lower form of life on the net, as in, “Oh, ignore him, he’s just a troll.” Compare kook.

Where today, “troll” is almost universally understood as the second of the above quoted definitions — a person solely out to provoke annoyance — I’ve always preferred the first definition. In that sense, a properly constructed troll is something I’ve always respected.

The comments for yesterday evening’s io9 post about the Hobbit trailer contain a beautiful example of trolling in the old sense (“…a post that induces lots of newbies and flamers to make themselves look even more clueless than they already do, while subtly conveying to the more savvy and experienced that it is in fact a deliberate troll. If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.”). This comment gave me a good laugh this morning:

Yawwwn, sequelitis strikes again.

Hey Hollywood, how long’d it take you to come up with yet another unnecessary backstory?! Do we really need to go with Frodo’s dad on his quest to find the ring?

I bet they’ll dumb it down and make it all kiddy too. Hard R or I ain’t watchin!

How much you wanna bet they’ll figure out a way to shoehorn half-a-dozen giant spiders to compete with the one they had in LOTR2.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a troll is supposed to be done.

Awkward Family Photos: The Game!

Long-time readers will know that my family has been featured on the Awkward Family Photos website not just once, but twice, and both photos were also featured in the Awkward Family Photos book. Well, you can’t keep a good thing down — we’re now also featured in the Awkward Family Photos game!

Long-time readers will know that my family has been featured on the Awkward Family Photos website not just once, but twice, and both photos were also featured in the Awkward Family Photos book.

Well, you can’t keep a good thing down — we’re now also featured in the Awkward Family Photos game!

Based on a popular website, Awkward Family Photos will be your new favorite party game! Combines classic and never- seen-before Awkward Family Photos with probing, open ended questions for a memorable game night full of laughter and creative discussion. Simply flip over an Awkward Family Photos featuring uncomfortable moments from weddings, vacations, and holidays and read aloud the open ended questions. Your hilarious answers guarantee a night of awkward fun…. and if you know your fellow players well enough, and impress them with your answers, you’ll get the last laugh.

Here’s the sales pitch, courtesy of AFP co-founder Mike Bender’s grandparents:

Mechanical Life and Intelligent Design

‘…this is proof that Autobots were not assembled on Cybertron by hurricanes or any other means envisioned by Darwin, and were Intelligently Designed. That makes the Transformers series a compelling parable for ID, and I expect several of this year’s Republican presidential candidates to recommend the movies on that basis alone.’

From On the Origin of Transformers:

The advocates of ID, who are arguing that their belief should be included in science classes in Texas, Tennessee and other states, say that if a living organism has a design that cannot be explained by the theory of natural selection, it is proof of an Intelligent Designer. If you consider a Camaro, for example, wouldn’t it obviously have had a Designer? Could its parts have been assembled by a hurricane (or a trillion hurricanes) blowing through a junkyard?

Certainly not. Therefore, this is proof that Autobots were not assembled on Cybertron by hurricanes or any other means envisioned by Darwin, and were Intelligently Designed. That makes the Transformers series a compelling parable for ID, and I expect several of this year’s Republican presidential candidates to recommend the movies on that basis alone.

Roger Ebert, making the case for Intelligent Design…at least within the universe of the Transformers.