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How Disney Built and Programmed an Animatronic President 97

An anonymous reader writes with this interesting look at how Disney created realistic animatronic figures in a time before programming languages and systems on a chip. Animatronics have powered some of sci-fi and fantasy cinema's most imposing creatures and characters: The alien queen in Aliens, the Terminator in The Terminator, and Jaws of Jaws (the key to getting top billing in Hollywood: be a robot). Even beloved little E.T.—of E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial—was a pile of aluminum, steel, and foam rubber capable of 150 robotic actions, including wrinkling its nose. But although animatronics is a treasured component of some of culture's farthest-reaching movies, it originated in much more mundane circumstances. According to the Disney archives, it began with a bird.

Among the things Walt Disney was renowned for was bringing animatronics (or what he termed at the time Audio-Animatronics) to big stages at his company and elsewhere. But Disney didn't discover or invent animatronics for entertainment use; rather, he found it in a store. In a video on Disney's site, Disney archivist Dave Smith tells a story of how one day in the early 1950s, while out shopping in New Orleans antique shop, Disney took note of a tiny cage with a tinier mechanical bird, bobbing its tail and wings while tweeting tunelessly. He bought the trinket and brought it back to his studio, where his technicians took the bird apart to see how it worked.

Comment Court Almost Always Prefers Narrow Decisions (Score 1) 263

US Courts, particularly the Supreme Court, generally prefer to make narrow decisions instead of broad ones. Occasionally they'll make a fairly activist decision, like the Miranda Warnings, or the Exclusionary Rule that says cops can't use illegally obtained evidence, but most of the time they'd rather decide a case on some relatively narrow grounds, such as rejecting somebody's argument because they didn't file the lawsuit before some deadline, or didn't have standing to make the case, or there were specific details as well as general legal principles and they could get the conclusion they wanted in this case based on the details instead of having to make new laws.

In this case, if I understand it correctly, they went sort of for the middle. They didn't throw out the whole concept of software patents, but there's a large class of software and business method patents like

Claim 1: Something obvious (or well-known, or prior art, or otherwise unpatentable
Claim 2: Do (Claim 1 thing) with a computer! (or On The Internets!)
Claim 3: Profit!!

and they've tossed those out. That's separate from an earlier class of patents, from back in the days that you weren't able to patent software, that would take some algorithm and describe a machine that implemented it, in ways that sort of got around the rules by claiming that some competitor's software was a software implementation of their hardware design and therefore infringing.

Comment Re:The real question in my mind (Score 1) 119

Vacuum tubes weren't particularly quantum, as long as you don't count "electron acting like a charged particle" as quantum and are dealing with large enough currents that you don't care about counting the precise timing of individual ones. Basic electrical forces do the job fine.

Transistors may be doing quantum stuff, and tunnel diodes are the classic quantum thing.

Comment What problems are Quantum Annealers good for? (Score 4, Interesting) 119

That's been the big question with D-Wave all along. What does it really do, how does it really work, what's it good for, is it real?

Everybody knows what a universal quantum computer is good for - running Shor's algorithm to do factoring and totally wrecking public-key cryptography, plus whatever other problems people care about in the real world. But general-purpose quantum computers so far can't keep enough qbits entangled together to factor numbers bigger than 21 = 3x7, and if anybody's figured out how to do significantly bigger than that, they're keeping it Really Well Hidden (either because they're a government, or because a government will want them to do stuff, or because a government will want them killed.)

Meanwhile, D-Wave has 512 qbits that they claim they'll be able to do something with, and maybe it'll have a chance of being cool or useful. And maybe if you kick in enough megabucks to get a non-disclosure agreement, you'll be able to get some information beyond vague quantumy handwaving. They are the only game in town, after all.

Comment Re:Short black with one (Score 1) 192

Traditionally we use half&half (causing the rest of the world to ask for a translation; it's a thinner cream that's halfway between milk and whipping cream.) It's available in little ultrapasteurized single-servings as well as fresh.

But if keeping the dairy products refrigerated isn't convenient, there are powdered imitations that deserve the contempt you've expressed, and liquid imitations that are excuses for corn syrup and artificial flavors, and also non-dairy creamers for people who can't tolerate lactose or want something that's kosher to use at a meat meal.

My high school chemistry/physics teacher would boil water in a beaker over a bunsen burner to make his instant coffee with. The water was hard enough that the beaker had a sludge just from that.

Comment Re:yuck epresso (Score 1) 192

After being exposed to Turkish coffee, my reaction has been "if the spoon falls over, your coffee's not strong enough."

But even when diluted by emigration to America, some parts of Scandinavian coffee culture remains. My experience with various church groups has been that the Lutherans (and spinoffs of Swedish Lutheranism) make better coffee than the Methodists I grew up with, and Southern Baptists make worse coffee (they're really iced tea people.)

Comment Re:This is what we've warned you about (Score 5, Interesting) 281

Mining pools and custom hardware do make it possible for a large enough group to get over 50%, especially as the need for mining hardware crowds CPU and GPU miners out of the game. We'll see whether they decide it's more useful to stay over 50% and cheat, stay over 50% and not cheat, or split the pool into two or more pieces to keep the value of their Bitcoins higher than they would be if the market abandons Bitcoin because of perceptions of cheating.

Comment NeWS. But realistically, FVWM (Score 1) 611

If it were portable and stable and still supported this decade, I'd really like NeWS, or at least OpenLook. The window system ran in PostScript, so What You See really Is What You Get. Iconizing a terminal window just cranked it down to a 1pt = 1 pixel font, and the icon was still a live window, so you could see the icon change when stuff scrolled. My supervisor kept switching between reading glasses and distance glasses, so we just set his default font size to 24 and everything was big and clear. It used a lot of memory, though - you needed the 8MB version of the Sun/3 instead of 4MB to get decent performance.

But realistically, FVWM or anything a half-step up from TWM was fine. Even Motif would do.

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