28 August 2005

Spaghetti Doesn't Snap in Two

[This is probably of "interest" only to B.B., but who knows.]

The PBS documentary The Best Mind Since Einstein is about the life and achievements of Richard Feynman. It includes clips of world-class scientists like Hans Bethe and Danny Hillis sharing their memories of Feynman.

One segment stuck in my head since 1993. Hillis recounted how he and Feynman spent hours in the kitchen snapping raw spaghetti to try to get it to break in two segments rather than three, coming up with various theories about why it refuses to break in two. Evidently Hillis's story is also in No Ordinary Genius, which parallels the documentary:

If you get a spaghetti stick and you break it, it will almost always break into three pieces. Why is this true -- why does it break into three pieces? We spent the next two hours coming up with crazy theories. We thought up experiments, like breaking it underwater because we thought that might dampen the sound, the vibrations. Well, we ended up at the end of a couple of hours with broken spaghetti all over the kitchen and no real good theory about why spaghetti breaks in three.
Well, wait no more! B. Audoly and S. Neukirch of the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie have posted videos and scientific articles about the science of spaghetti-snapping. Their paper (pre-print?) in Physical Review Letters, "Fragmentation of rods by cascading cracks: why spaghetti do not break in half" is online. I like Fig. 4, comparing Barilla Nos. 1, 5, and 7, whose caption begins, "Space-time diagram, in rescaled coordinates, of the breaking events obtained by repeating the experiment [...] for different pasta radii and initial curvatures [kappa-naught]."

By the way, the Vega Science Trust has four free online videos of Feynman giving The Douglass Robb Memorial Lectures.


27 August 2005

Washington County Fair

You might not have predicted it, but I have an odd love of boardwalks and county fairs. Today we went to the Washington County Fair in Greenwich, NY, which is in the vicinity of Saratoga Springs and more generally, Albany.

Thousands of people are there, along with a tractor pull, livestock displays (from 4-H kids who spend the previous 12 months grooming their cows and chickens), and a carnival.

I hope they don't make me line-dance when I get old. Posted by Picasa

The fair had several booths with livestock to pet and admire. Posted by Picasa

Fried food! Posted by Picasa

Wilbur taking a nap. Posted by Picasa

25 August 2005

Houston Redux

Hello from Houston again, my new home-away-from-home. I come here frequently because of the applications of 3-D displays for oil and gas exploration and production.

I am thankful that I am at the end of a very productive and promising Day 2. However, Day 1 was involved with some behind-the-scenes small-scale calamity. Unfortunately I don't feel comfortable writing about the details but I thought you'd get a kick out of the prime character in my tale: a freakin' 18' Penske cargo van which I very unsuccessfully parked at Major Company.

Anyway, for mostly J-Fav's benefit, here is a photo of the truck. Imagine me cruising around in this thing, my dorky face visible behind the windshield. This thing didn't even have "Park" on the automatic gear shift. It had "Reverse," "Neutral," and "Drive," and one gigantic hand-operated emergency brake. It was 11' 6" high, doesn't fit into hotel (or corporate) parking garages, and of course lacks a rear-view mirror. I could run over BMWs if I wanted. I was above eye-level of bus drivers.

So, um:

Rent one from Penske.

Yes, it takes diesel, and yes, that's an additional door on the side of the vehicle.

Back in New England tomorrow night.


23 August 2005


The reference to an interesting paper on you-are-here maps is:

Marvin Levine, "You-are-here maps: psychological considerations," Environment and Behavior, Vol. 14, No. 2, March 1982, pp. 221-237.

21 August 2005

Hoisting Roast Pig

Back from Houston - Grievance Re:Mass. Signage
'Round midnight I came back from Houston. Once again, I-93 was closed from the airport and whatever REALLY IDIOTIC SIGNAGE ENGINEER sort of forgot to make sure that the detour signs spanned all the way from the tunnel to the continuation of Said Interstate. Thank goodness I had a GPS; the signage evaporated somewhere near a completely unmarked 4-way rotary. What do Boston tourists do? Or visiting businesspeople? Mr. Romney, please find the people in charge of Massachusetts state signage and slap them silly. Then give them a copy of any book by Donald Norman or Edward Tufte and send them to IDEO for a summer internship and GET US SOME REAL SIGNAGE.

Maybe I was stuck because of this? Was I really expected to visit the website for the Mass. Turnpike Authority prior to returning home from a business trip, and then map out North Washington Street in case the engineers failed to add signage? Is that even where I was?

[Yes, I do get huffy about these things.]

Oh, and then I made it home so that I could head with J-Fav to something we've been looking forward to:

Back From an Awesome Luau
Our friend RH turned 30 this weekend and held a pig-tac-u-lar luau whose centerpiece was a roast pig.

As I had hoped, La Lecturess perfectly captured the mood of the evening. However, dear reader, I swear, I did not ingest any snout. Honest. Hoofs, tails, yes. But snout?, my word - no. What do you take me for?

Back to Rambling About Human Factors
There is actually a journal article about how to design "You Are Here" maps, you know, for elevators and things. Note to self: add reference when I've found the paper again. (Kind of ironic.)

There is a whole field of study that concerns "usability" - when usability requirements are ignored, for example, you find yourself doing things like:
  • Pulling on a "push" door
  • Guessing incorrectly about which knob turns on the oven burner you want to light
  • Failing to locate your computer's power switch

Here is a brief overview of the field, by Dey Alexander.

A standard, fun, and quite readable introduction - in paperback! - is Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. Run out and buy it. Why? If you're not a designer, it'll increase your self-image because you'll quit calling yourself stupid when you can't get objects to function the way you wanted. If you are a designer, well, you probably read it already and Chris Wickens's stuff, too.

New Highway Font

This is old news, but the official U.S. highway font has changed! The typeface we all know and love, FWHA Standard Highway Alphabet E now has an alternative: ClearviewHwy.

Read about it at the Typographica blog, and also at the official website for ClearviewHwy.

Image linked from Terminal Design, Inc.

17 August 2005

A Few Books

Or, a couple of books.

Excerpts of people's journals, including David Byrne:

And a fantastically designed book about amateur ("ham") radio which made me wish I could, well, do graphic design. The excerpts on Amazon.com don't do it justice.

And, note to self - Hikaru No Go. Volumes 1 and 2 were fun. I've never read any manga before, but this is... well, it's about go!

Oh, and: Three guys quit their jobs and Segway from Seattle to Boston? "Segway Across America at 10 mph."

That's tonight's installment from Planet Houston. Two confessions: I am addicted to Pappadeux Seafood Kitchen and I continue to not quite understand the Hardy Toll Road.


16 August 2005

Dial "M" for... "Mercury"

Dial M 4 Mercury is a new online service that zaps your recorded phone message to huge lists of people... automatically. Give it your phone list and credit card number. It calls you; you record your message, and you're done.

Website: www.DialM4Mercury.com

A good friend launched this service just days ago.

And now: I'm off to Houston. Back on Friday.

03 August 2005

SIGGRAPH - Art and Electronics

(Note to self... and people who dig contemporary art and neat products.)

I wonder what it signifies that I spent more time in SIGGRAPH's emerging technologies and art exhibit than at the paper presentations.

I was transfixed by four things:

I Want One: Yamaha's "Tenori-On" Musical Instrument
"Media artist Toshio Iwai has been collaborating with YAMAHA to develop a new digitial musical instrument, TENORI-ON. TENORI-ON's interface: a 16 x 16 matrix of LED switches allows everyone - from non-musicians to professionals - to play music intuitively and create music visibly."

See it here. Essentially, it is a visible / tactile sequencer. One axis is time, the other pitch. It also has modes which look like cellular automata crossed with pong; xylophones and timpani sound off as little pixels fly around the touch-friendly screen.

One of the inventors demonstrated it for me and I didn't want to give it back.

The Art of Jim Campell
Words don't do it justice. I stood watching Ambiguous Icons : Church on Fifth Avenue (2001) for a very, very long time. (Sparse LED matrix with a diffuser in front, playing a movie of street scenes yields more detail than you'd suspect.) Anyone know anything about him?

Roman Verostko
I enjoyed his algorithmic art. This piece is a good example.

Sherban Epure

Laura Rusnak
You can view some of the pieces I liked here. They remind me of Tom Philips's "Humament" works.

This picture is hyperlinked directly from Laura Rusnak's website.

Electronic Life Forms
Two analog electronic artists - Pascal Glissman and Martina Hofflin - placed tiny analog circuits in a series of glass bell jars under bright lighting. The circuits looked like alien insects, storing up energy from the "sun" and expressing a wiggle or chirping some bug sounds.
Here is a photograph linked from their site:

See the "electronic life forms" website.

02 August 2005

SIGGRAPH 2005 : Los Angeles

Hello from LA after an uneventful BOS - LAX direct flight and a l-o-o-n-g wait for Thrifty Car rental. Soon after landing, I heard from family-of-Fav that an Air France flight to Toronto was significantly more eventful (and fortunately everyone survived.)

Looking back, the biggest scare I ever had in the air was on a trip from Boston to Seattle on Alaska Airlines; the engine backfired, puffs of fire and smoke came out of the engine, and the plane turned right around and landed at Logan where we were welcomed by fire trucks and many, many television cameras. Gulp.


...is "the" computer graphics conference, with worldwide attendance from the most prominent people in our field. Ever wonder how they made "Toy Story"? The scientists at this thing figure out how to computationally depict things like hair, cloth, and bubbling water, and then talk about it at SIGGRAPH.

While I was in the air, two colleagues gave a course on 3-D display technologies that I would have liked to have attended. Tomorrow I will visit the emerging technologies area and have a short rehearsal for Thursday morning's panel discussion.

There are already blogs covering SIGGRAPH and Flickr photos tagged for the conference. It's a great experience. Professor B, I think you'll get a kick out of some of those photos (a few pages in).

Here's to SIGGRAPH 2006, which will be in Boston. Woo-hoo!

Oh, and: Elevator "Hacking"
This piece on Engadget is about how to put the elevator into express mode if you want to override the other floors people selected.