29 December 2007

Exclusive Coverage of Evidently Quite Important Sporting Match

A few friends requested that I provide expert commentary and insight into this evening's football (Américain) game. Certainly they are not making fun of how little I understand about the game. I admit that I learned of this particular match when I was wrapping up some work at Starbucks yesterday; in a Boston accent I overheard:

Stranger 1 (turns around to speak over shoulder to Stranger 2): "So, ah, what channel ah you watching on Satuhday?"

Stranger 2: "Hah! Yeah, good question."

Stranger 1: "(exclusivity, something) (mahket something)"

So, the Fergusbergs told me there is an exceptionally important game this evening, in which the Patriots might win an awful lot of games in a row. This is big. Six-blade Schick big.

For your benefit, here is an exclusive, real-time, game-night analysis through the unbiased eyes of a sports-ignoramus.

All times in Eastern.

[9.27p] After a half hour of reading, I set down Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook and wolf down the remains of a steak dinner which got me in an appropriately high-testosterone mood for the Big Event. I turn on the TV, and see that indeed, the shindig is playing on 57 of our 59 channels.

[9.28p] Manning something. A guy wearing blue is on the ground, praying and complaining! According to the top of the screen, "NU" (must be New York, never good spellers) has 14 points and the red/blue flag-head has 16. The Pats are winning. This is good.

[9.32] "We've got a little skirmish in the Giants' backfield!" Mr. Wilfork poked someone in the eye. Is this normal? This is kind of cool, actually. Nyuk-nyuk. "While the skirmish is going on, the clock is ticking.. Jacobs something." Is skirmish like the standard word for this type of brouhaha?

What kind of name is Wilfork?

Wait, I've been called worse.

The refs punish the eye-poker, and then I think they change their mind. I don't think I've seen that before. Something about a timeout.

The commentators are really picking on this Manning guy. Wait, he's wearing blue, I shouldn't feel sorry for him.

[9.37p] A bad throw into the touchdown lane.

Endzone. Sorry, endzone.

[9.39p] Hey, that guy looks like a miniature Bryant Gumbel. Wait, it IS Bryant Gumbel.

Again with this "Manning."

Damn! Touchdown for Giants. It's 16-20. Boss something.

This is fun. Especially that I can fast-forward my TiVo.

[9.58p] We are at three-hyphens-out-of-four, and the score is 16-21 NY. I suspect Boston is cringing. But fear not! I believe we can pull ahead.

It appears that a number of individuals have been tackled. Commercial break.

(This is a perfect time for me to explain why, in real life, I refer to football players as mechanical engineers. I have nothing against MechE's. Rather, in grad school, all the guys in my mech-e class were football players. So I figured it was a thing everywhere. I mean, you're in a coffee shop and you see a tall wiry guy wearing a black turtleneck and you think "comp lit major," right? Same goes for football players.)

Hummer commercial? They're raping the environment!

Oh, wait, the game is back.

The commentators sound surprised that the New York team is trying so hard for a "game that doesn't matter." But they're winning. Why are they being so rude?

I note insightful banter regarding Brady as "golden boy," and, "hah hah, the prince got his crown tonight."

Okay, I'll shut up and watch for a bit.

(watches with confusion but a genuine intent to understand this game)

[10.02p] I am distracted by someone being called Eli. And he wears blue.

Junk, the NY guys are now at the 20.

"at the 20." Do I know the lingo or what?

[10.04p] It is probably safe for us to conclude that people named Manning and Seubert have some gravity in this matter.

Interlude: I've long wondered why companies like Motorola place such huge logos on the headphone/microphone things the coaches wear. Do they have to pay for the product placement? I mean, what's the total addressable market for that stuff? And...

Damn!!! Touchdown, Giants.

[10.06p] 16-28 NY.


(A perfectly-timed commercial break, a modern-day Send in the Clowns.) I've seen commercials for Taco Bell gorditas for five years and never been tempted to try one. Maybe it's the giant long windsock-shaped clear plastic meat bag they keep the ground beef in behind the counter. For real. I've seen it. A while ago there was a horrific accident in front of the one in Cambridge, and then the Taco Bell closed, and that must have impacted the local economy really badly, because nearby Walden Street and its feeble bridge have been shut for, what, three years? I mean, it's a BRIDGE people! We've sequenced freaking GENOMES in less time!

(auto-psychoanalytical flashback) When I was little, I used to watch boxing on TV with my family at midnight because it was an excuse to stay up late and maybe have popcorn, but I didn't understand what was happening, and I often came down with an ear infection the next day. Maybe that's why I am disinterested in sports today. (/flashback)

Mr. Brady advances the ball to the 20!

I haven't had the opportunity to stand up in the living room and yell "SAAAAACKED" yet. My college friends might wonder why that's the only football term I know; it's because of the following overdubbed spoof on the PSAs that appeared at the end of the 1980s animated series "G.I. Joe":

[10.17p] Touchdown, Patriots! (22-28) A commentator said, "Ross was there but Maroney broke the tackle. And just like that, the Patriots have broken the drive of Eli Manning and the Giants. And closed within one spore."


[10.20p] During this commercial break, the nation likely reflects on what football players do during the commercial breaks. I also wonder what David Letterman and Jon Stewart are saying when they learn over and whisper in their guests' ears at the end of each interview segment.

Hey, that's a neat car commercial. Oh, wait, it's for ANOTHER HUMMER.

A clever E*Trade commercial about stock trading. (Woah. Their stock plummeted from 25 to 3.5 in 2007. They shouldn't be making commercials, they should be selling off their Aeron chairs.)

Goodness, a third Hummer commercial in the last hour.

[10.24p] Why did the commentator just say "tumor"?

[10.25p] Oh.

[10.31p] Let's see how my expert analysis stacks up against the current instant-blog posts over at SI.com (start at the bottom):

10:31 Let's see if the giants can do what no one else has done, hold on to the lead Rays201
10:31 nflatx: WTF are you talking about.. the played the '07 Dolphins TWICE!!! Those don't even count as games and they didn't score for the last half hour of the last one!! Osiris30
10:30 Osris30, cannot agree, one drive or Non-drive will not yet decide this match.... more to follow thankfully +40yrCowboyFan
10:30 i love my giants but i hate elisha! especially when the chargers used the picks we gave them for merriman, kaeding and rivers! we had them over a barrell and then gave up a draft and a half for elisha! WHAT?!?!?!?! damienw
10:30 in fifteen minutes history will be made. ironheart
10:30 either way, even at this point Pats are WAY better than 72 Dolphins. They played much tougher teams and pulled out. nflatx
10:30 comeon Belichick, work your magic! tarheelblue50

I feel outclassed. All I know is that "damienw" spelled "barrel" incorrectly. Maybe I shouldn't jump to conclusions, though. It could be part of the football vernacular; I remember wondering why Department of Defense grant solicitations always spelled "material" wrong as "materiel." Then I realized they're different [Wikipedia].

[10.34p] Something about "...leaves the Patriots with third and ten. If the Giants can get a stop here it'll be huge." We're at 28-23.

[10.35p] It's about time for more commercials. I think the signal to noise ratio of this game is about 1:1. Why are those Coors Light drinkers all holding their cans at the very bottom? (Is there a bottom equivalent for "tippy-top"? "Tippy-bottom"?)

[10.38p] Another commercial break. I am in shock after seeing the Wendy's "baconator."

Can someone call the Guiness World Records people? I think I exceeded our lifetime allotment of quotation marks.

[10.47p] A guy named Moss from the Patriots allows an albeit difficult-looking pass to slip through his grasp. Insert witticism about "a moss gathers no stones" here. Wait, his name is Randy Moss? Never mind, that's a joke in itself. A ribald forestry joke, yes, but still a joke.

[10.48p] Brady tries the same pass again and Moss catches it and PATS GET A TOUCHDOWN!

[10.54] During this commercial break I'll try to figure out what is meant by, "the Patriots, with 15 unanswered, are leading by three." Did I hear that right?

We interrupt this exclusive coverage to review the stats:

RUSHING: Maroney ATT:16. Faulk: TD:0.
DEFENSE: Hobbs TK:3, AS:0. Wilfork SK-YD:0.
PUNT RETURNS: McQuarters TK:1.

(That reminds me of the character whose fake ID says "McLovin" in the hilarious movie Superbad. Seriously; I laughed so hard that I was in pain for several hours. Here's the NSFW YouTube clip.)

[11:01p] It's 31-28. Or is it -26? I can't tell. The font they chose doesn't render well in NTSC. Bandwidth, people, bandwidth! Did you learn nothing in your Fourier Analysis class!?

(This reminds me of how thoughtlessly the U.S. - or at least Mass. state - license plate typeface is designed. How can you discern the zero from the "oh" from afar? Why didn't they put a slash through the zero?)

[11.03p] My whining was sidetracked when I noticed the current score of 38-28.

I could just shut this off. If I was in New Jersey, I could go where the Jets fans (and hence maybe the Giants fans) congregate for hot dogs cooked in hot oil: Rutt's Hut. If I was outside I could get fresh air. But no! dear reader, I have pumped myself up on medium-rare beef; I have read profanity-laced French recipes from Bourdain; I will not leave you yet.

[11.08] Prediction: there will be unhappy Giants fans tonight.

(I space out for ten minutes.)

[11.18p] Touchdown: Patriots! And then a commentator launches this obfuscated insight: "We have just four ticks of the clock beyond a minute for this one."

[11.20p] Frayble something. "This should do it."

I should really read this. I think we have it somewhere.

Wait, why are these grown men hugging their enemies with just over a minute left? (I mean, 61 ticks of the clock.)

It's weird watching the clock run down like this. I mean, bang or whimper?

[11.22p] 38-35! Go Pats!

There you have it, folks. A most historic game. Drive carefully, and have a good night, like it's first down and the goalie is in center field.

Please direct questions, comments, remarks, etc. in the comment area below. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect much of anything, really. Let's break for a commercial. This post will probably be deleted in a few days out of self-interest.

g-fav, "le footballeur extraordinaire"

22 December 2007

New President of RISD: John Maeda

According to Scott Kirsner's Innovation Economy blog, MIT Media Lab artist John Maeda has accepted RISD's offer to be their next president! [RISD page & video]

I have been a fan of Maeda's work ever since a friend suggested I check him out.


17 December 2007

How to Ask Questions the Smart Way


We're back from a fun weekend tour of CT and NJ to visit grandparents. (And to do some evening snow shoveling before it freezes the next day...)

Those of you who have used techie help forums know that there are good ways and bad ways to ask technical questions. Evidently there's been a document online with some thoughtful points on the topic of, "How to Ask Questions the Smart Way." Even if you're just using Apple's online help forums, it's worth seeing what (the particularly opinionated) geeks like to see before they'll stoop down to answer you.

Oh, and here are two humorous bits from McSweeney's:

"Yiddish Spam" by Matthew Brozik.
"Some Relatively Recent College Grads Discuss Their Maids," by Ellie Kemper.

Finally, for those of you who read xkcd, here is an article summarizing how to find resistances of various resistive grids: "Infinite resistive lattices," Atkinson and van Steenwijk, Am. J. Phys. (1999).


13 December 2007

Maybe, abhoring Pound less

Here is "Salutation" by Ezra Pound.


ps I was about to show you the poem verbatim, but then I noticed this, and decided against it.

pps Given the subject matter, this is really ironic.

12 December 2007

On TV: Physics educational show

It's back: PBS is again providing late-night (around 2.30 am on WENH here near Boston) showings of several episodes of the famous, freshman-level CalTech physics course: "The Mechanical Universe." It very clearly explains topics spanning vectors, inertia, and special relativity, and was pioneering in its use of computer graphics for education (by Jim Blinn).

I mentioned this last year in the hopes that some of you would find it interesting.

You can try a few episodes by setting your DVR to record the upcoming episodes. TiVo just needs the program title for a "Season Pass."

I still have the special relativity episode from last year's reruns because it explains space-time and simultaneity so well.


ps You might be able to see streaming episodes here.

11 December 2007

A dark comic strip

The Perry Bible Fellowship (I don't know why they call it that) is the work of Nicholas Gurewitch. Many of the strips are in quite different formats, take more than a few seconds to get, and, well, are pretty dark. (1) (2) (3) (4) I suppose it's like The Far Side, only... more so.

Hey, book signings in Rochester soon! Oh, wait, I don't live near Rochester.


10 December 2007

Contemporary Art @ MIT

Artists of the contemporary art association Collision Collective are exhibiting at the MIT Stata Center from Nov 30 - Dec 16 in Collision 12:mini [link].

Has anyone visited?


09 December 2007

Hot Buttered Rum

Tonight we trimmed the tree. Here is a recipe straight from How to Cook Everything (Mark Bittman - we like it a lot!) for a drink that keeps us warm...

However, I made these at work last year before Christmas break; there was a lot of nose-squinching when people saw butter, rum, sugar, and cinnamon sticks arrayed on the countertop. So maybe I'm alone on this one.


(copied from p807)

Hot Buttered Rum
Makes 1 serving

The grown-up equivalent of hot cocoa - perfect when you're chilled to the bone. Add a pinch of ground cloves, cinnamon, and/or nutmeg if you like.

1 cup water
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) rum

  1. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil.
  2. Place the remaining ingredients in a mug and pour boiling water over them. Stir and serve.


These Would Sell - Part 1

  1. Massless kitty litter ("New Scoop-Away Zero-g(tm)")
  2. EZ-install/-remove air conditioners ("Now with handles - and on rails!")
  3. Spice containers labeled up near the cap
  4. LED billboard for your car ("Next time use your turn indicator BEFORE you turn, dimwit!")


06 December 2007

Cold "Remedies"

A few things having to do with the common cold, said cold afflicting yours truly, for which he expects much sympathy and guidance, &c., &c.

Do any of you have a preferred way of dealing with or shortening the duration of a cold?

Maybe I'm just a wuss, but over the past couple of years (toddler germ-sharing perhaps?) I've gotten a few colds that've plain knocked me over and out of commission. Frequent business travel really cuts into one's resistance, so with those colds I've been trying a bunch of things other than Vitamin C (which is better for pre-cold health than intra-cold cure).

  • Airborne.
  • Cold-EEZE, an awful-tasting sucking candy with plenty of zinc gluconate, has been shown in a few reputable-sounding clinical studies (e.g. Cleveland Clinic) to reduce the duration of a cold. I've convinced myself that they work. One study (McElroy and Miller, 2003) explained in their abstract of a trial involving school-aged children that: "A total of 178 children, ages 12 to 18 years, was enrolled, of which 134 met criteria for efficacy analysis. The average cold duration with therapeutic lozenge use was 6.9 +/- 3.1 days, significantly shorter than the 9.0 +/- 3.5 days found in the control group..."
  • By the way, here's what a search for medical data looks like if you're a researcher [Go to PubMed and enter, say, Cold-eeze in the search field.]
  • This week, though, I went particularly hog-wild and bought two additional remedies to try. The first is ZICAM, a bunch of single-dose swabs-in-a-tube-of-zinc-liquid-for-your-nose. I think this woman's blog post describes it well.
  • Second, I picked up homeopathic oscillococcinum, a product that is evidently popular in France. Oscillococcinum comes in a bunch of tube-doses, each tube containing plenty of tiny little sugary dots laced with extract of something-or-other from wild duck heart and liver. You're supposed to let them dissolve in your mouth every 6 hours. A little odd, maybe, and my reading on homeopathy suggests that the dilutive process results in one or zero molecules of the desired substance per dose, anyhow. Placebo? I don't know. Actually, this stuff is for treating the flu, not the cold. (Vickers and Smith, 2004).
  • Water and tea.
  • Fatty foods. I crave Chinese food when I'm sick. Then again, I always crave Chinese food.

A few other things having nothing to do with my cold

A lengthy piece about Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh. (Yes, he composed much of the music for "Rushmore.")

A short essay by MIT's Gilbert Strang, "Too Much Calculus," extolling the virtues of teaching linear algebra early on.

The New York Times: "The 10 Best Books of 2007."

One of my favorite arcade games: Marble Madness.

Groan! Is Europe a country? You've probably seen this gameshow clip regarding Budapest.

Attention font nerds! T-Shirts for you from Wire & Twine.


02 December 2007

"There aren't enough minds to house the population explosion of memes"

I invite you to take a look at philosopher Daniel Dennett's brief note in the book What is your dangerous idea?. No, this one isn't an essay about atheism; rather, it is a meditation on the continuous ramp-up of information that we're all swimming in, as most recently enabled by the WWW.

Perhaps you're already sensitized to this, as, for example, wubbahead describes nicely in the opening of his recent blog entry.

Anyhow, here's a snippet of paragraph three of eight from Dennett:

The human population is still growing, but at nowhere near the rate that the population of memes is growing. There is competition for the limited space in human brains for memes, and something has to give. Thanks to our incessant and often technically brilliant efforts, and our apparently insatiable appetites for novelty, we have created an explosively growing flood of information, in all media, on all topics, in every genre. Now either (1) we will drown in this flood of information, or (2) we won't drown in it. Both alternatives are deeply disturbing. What do I mean by drowning? I mean that we will become psychologically overwhelmed, unable to cope, victimized by the glut and unable to make life-enhancing decisions in the face of an unimaginable surfeit. (I recall the brilliant scene in the film of Evelyn Waugh's dark comedy The Loved One in which embalmer Mr. Joyboy's gluttonous mother is found sprawled on the kitchen floor, helplessly wallowing in the bounty that has spilled from a capsized refrigerator.) We will be lost in the maze, preyed upon by whatever clever forces find ways of pumping money–or simply further memetic replications–out of our situation. (In The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells sees that it might well be our germs, not our high-tech military contraptions, that subdue our alien invaders. Similarly, might our own minds succumb not to the devious manipulations of evil brainwashers and propagandists, but to nothing more than a swarm of irresistible ditties, Nous nibbled to death by slogans and one-liners?)

(Get the whole thing here.)


01 December 2007

This week, go outside at night

Hello -

I know it's cold out (well, in New England, at least), but walk out into your yard for a moment some night this week, around 10 or midnight or whatever. Look up, near Orion. See that really bright thing? That's Mars. That's right, it ain't Jupiter, it's Mars. For those of you who aren't star-gazers: trust me, it usually ain't this bright. If you have a pair of binoculars, try taking a look.

And that's not all!

According to the free monthly star chart available from the kind folks at skymaps.com,
Dec. 18 will be "The closest and brightest that Mars will be until May 2016."


29 November 2007

Optical Cancer Detection @ BU

This is probably late notice for those of you interested in attending, but on Friday I'll be at Optical Imaging for Medicine and Biology: Applications in Cancer Detection, a conference at Boston University. (Details)


ps Did you catch the Technology Review article on a large-scale simulation of the brain? The article is interesting, but be sure to spend some time looking at the gallery on the project's work site: Blue Brain Project (presumably named for the IBM partnership).

27 November 2007

Amazing Flight Delay Map, and Design, Design, Design.

Happy Holidays! Welcome back.

Flight Wait. Do me a favor and click here. It's a 1-page website that shows you how delayed flights are into various airports with color-coded lines.

A new design firm that's not bound by engineering reality: non-object. (Thanks, DOliver!)

Grand Theft Auto-esque Coca Cola advertisement. (YouTube)

Brief Andy Warhol "interview." Y'know, I've heard about his style, but I've never heard an interview. (YouTube)

This guy designs the fake futuristic computer interfaces for movies: Mark Coleran. His demo real most definitely doesn't suck.

Intrigued by what's on the computer screens in Star Trek or being manipulated in Minority Report? Reality is pretty much in sync with the dreams of special effects artists. Here are a few examples:

You've probably seen Jeff Han's fabulous touch screen and very thoughtful demos (turn up the volume):

The folks at University of Toronto made a 3-D CAD program that interpreted how you point and "squeeze" your fingers as commands to a mechanical design program. It won the UIST 2004 Best Paper Award:

(Click here for .AVI video, and here for the paper.)

The Microsoft Surface (yes, this is real):

You can have wall-sized or book-sized holograms made-to-order from Zebra Imaging:

...and can mix computer graphics with reality to get "augmented reality," in which the synthetic objects act like they're being pushed around by forces in the real world:

And I should plug Actuality's 3-D display; here's what it looked like back in 2002:

Want to learn more about advanced human-computer interfaces? Check out Prof. Hiroshi Ishii's lab at the MIT Media Lab: the Tangible Media Group.


23 November 2007


It is my obligation to keep your "RSS" status indicator lit in your hunt for things to click on while digesting turkey leftovers. So:

Happy Thanksgiving!


19 November 2007

Ivy "Football," iPhoto, and stuff

Hello -

We returned from a weekend in Connecticut to visit family and go to The Game, shorthand for the annual Yale / harvard football game. My friends know that I'm more of a fan of the tailgate than the sport, but this year was a bit of a doozy for all of us: the pre-game traffic was molasses (forcing GEB to deposit her car exactly 2.8 miles from the Bowl and walk there with little Edith), we lost big time, and... well, actually, that's it. J-Fav, T-Fav, and I got some dinner with GEB somewhere near the sea of abandoned cars and then rounded back to campus for a sentimental walk at night.

(Alumni: new buildings! everywhere! CCL has been replaced by Bass Library. There's a giant concrete-and-glass engineering building next to Watson. The Trumbull basement now looks like a high-end rebuild of WLH.)

Photos of the game. If any of you want your likeness removed, just email me.

The Game 2007

Click to see some photos of The Game.

Oh, and:

iTunes trick. Wish there was an easier way to automatically give good names to your photos, other than DSC00421.jpg? Well, after you import your "roll," select the photos, go to Photos > Batch Change. Select "Set (Title) to (Text)", type in a label, and check "Append a number to each photo." and blam-o! Everything's renamed and numbered!

Amazon.com's e-book reader with no service or subscription fee downloads books and Wikipedia pages wirelessly. Check out Kindle.

Reviews of VC funds by entrepreneurs. TheFunded.com (thanks Ted)

That's all,


15 November 2007

Extra: Marching band video game emulation

Fellow band-geeks,

This is a video of the U.C. Berkeley marching band routine of Pong, Super Mario Brothers, Zelda... Oh, yeah!


ps The "reductionist" (or not) conversation is still going on down there \/ .

14 November 2007

IKEA product names... and some other nonsense

I seem to have disappeared for a bit, sorry about that. Thought you might enjoy:

What are you lookin' at, EKTORP?
David Byrne (yes, David Byrne has a blog! I hadn't known...) wonders aloud about IKEA - is it some odd video game-like world? - and teaches us, via Wikipedia, what IKEA's product-naming conventions are! Here you go. The IKEA stuff is at the bottom. (Surprise to me, actually. I thought it was Haagen-Dazs-esque nonsense.)

How to Deal With Obnoxious Bluetooth Headset Talkers
A funny video clip with Larry David. This is, like, so me. Nothing gets me more rankled during my (not at all yuppie...) visits to Starbucks than the throngs of people TALKING INTO SPACE.

What if 24 were actually set in 1994?
This CollegeHumor video is making the rounds. Quick! Bauer! Log on to AOL!

Regarding Fine Print
The consistently insightful Seth Godin comments about product markings that accentuate the good and hide the bad... and how you can build trust by doing otherwise.

The Game
Boola boola! Go Bulldogs. Here's to another year of keeping one of our behind-the-scenes wedding vows... and to staying awake.

(Actually, if any Yalies are reading this, you might get a weird kick out of the discussion page of that article - an unusually well-worded argument about what the article title should be. Pshaw! (swirls brandy snifter, patriarchially).)


ps Regarding something I mentioned in the midst of all that Enlightenment huffery, I am still struggling with that brief piece that shares this one particular engineering thing for non-engineers because I'm having trouble coming up with a real-world application of it that won't put people to sleep in the process. Other than answering the questions, "why do wagon wheels look like they're spinning backwards in old movies?" and "why can't radio stations be closer together?" which, actually, are really closely related.

pps Literature people: am I alone in disliking the poetry of Ezra Pound? Do you have to swallow a library of ancient Greek and Latin books, with a chaser of Pretentious, to get him?

09 November 2007


A different kind of Twin Paradox

A special post for V-Fav: How could the second of two twins be born 26 minutes before the first? Find out here [geekpress].


03 November 2007

People didn't always think "reductively"? (Or, The Enlightenment)

Hi -

Some person or people explicitly proposed the notion that phenomena can be best understood by breaking them down into parts. Who? When?

I'm so self-conscious about whether anyone reads these notes, and what you might be thinking on the other end of the Tubes, that I'm tempted to label everything "note to self" as to avert any "Wow, Gregg is either naive, or full of himself, or both..." head-scratching over there. Truth is, I've always struggled understanding subjects outside of engineering, science, music, and the visual arts, meaning, well, history, literature, philosophy, and everything else in the department store listing of topics in the college Course Catalog that frightened me. Finally, in my 30s, I'm trying again to understand what people thought about Long Ago. Lately I've been "tricked" into thinking about this stuff -- I pick up a book by a scientist, and lo!, he's talking about mysterious figures during the Enlightenment and the notion that hey, look, this is when people started thinking about problems in the scientific and political worlds and breaking them down to their essences... (it wasn't obvious?) and, well, I just get sucked in to this interesting historic stuff that I couldn't comprehend in high school.

E.g., my memory of four years of grade-school history can be summarized thus:

So, really, I wanted to jot down some notes here in the hopes that I'll actually remember some of this. And fortunately most of you are historians and English-studiers who can correct me if I'm interpreting these things wrong.

I'm still reading Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (E. O. Wilson); I've mentioned this a few times here. Although I think his writing is brilliant and shows strong evidence of his having traversed many diverse fields, I... well... I still don't get the thesis. The kind editors at Amazon explain:

[It's] a wonderfully broad study that encourages scholars to bridge the many gaps that yawn between and within the cultures of science and the arts. No such gaps should exist, Wilson maintains, for the sciences, humanities, and arts have a common goal: to give understanding a purpose, to lend to us all "a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws."

Wilson (8-9) explains:

Consilience is the key to unification. I prefer this word over "coherence" because its rarity has preserved its precision, whereas coherence has several possible meanings, only one of which is consilience. William Whewell, in his 1840 synthesis The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, was the first to speak of consilience, literally a "jumping together" of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. He said, "The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs."

Anyhow, this is what Wilson's book is about, but actually I want to make sense of how and when reductionist thinking appeared on the scene. This occupies a chapter or two. It goes like this:

  • "The dream of intellectual unity first came to full flower in the original Enlightenment, an Icarian flight of the mind that spanned the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A vision of secular knowledge in the service of human rights and human progress, it was the West's greatest contribution to civilization. It launched the modern era for the whole world; we are all its legatees. Then it failed." (15)
  • The end of the Enlightenment is the death in 1794 of the Marquis de Condorcet.
  • In 1793, Robespierre royally sucked, man. He took Rousseau really literally, with his suggestion to treat as deviants those people who didn't conform to the "general will," the rule of justice that would try to achieve "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."
  • I can imagine most of you are cringing reading this, as I'd cringe watching someone work out Ohm's Law...
  • Anyway, Condorcet (b: 1743, France) was trained as a mathematician. Evidently he was the first guy to apply mathematical reasoning to the social sciences. So did Laplace, who I had thought was just the guy who came up with a way for engineers do to differential equations easier, but never mind that. Also, "Condorcet was a polymath with a near-photographic memory, for whom knowledge was a treasure to be acquired relentlessly and shared freely." He knew a LOT about, you know, EVERYTHING.
  • At one point, Condorcet fled to a boardinghouse in Paris, and relied on his memory to write a historical tract: Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In it, he wrote, "The sole foundation for belief in the natural sciences, is the idea that the general laws directing the phenomena of the universe, known or unknown, are necessary and constant. Why should this principle be any less true for the development of the intellectual and moral faculties of man than for other operations of nature?"
  • (Remember, the Enlightenment is a river of thought by a lot of people, like "Bacon, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, and Newton in England; Descartes and the eighteenth-century philosophes around Voltaire in France; Kant and Leibniz in Germany; Grotius in Holland; Galileo in Italy.")
  • Ah, okay, so here's what I was looking for -
  • Regarding reductionism: Francis Bacon -
Science was the engine of the Enlightenment. The more scientifically disposed of the Enlightenment authors agreed that the cosmos is an orderly material existence governed by exact laws. It can be broken down into entities that can be measured an arranged in hierarchies, such as societies, which are made up of persons, whose brains consist of nerves, which in turn are composed of atoms. In principle at least, the atoms can be reassembled into nerves, the nerves into brains, and the persons into societies, with the whole understood as a system of mechanisms and forces. If you still insist on a divine intervention, continued the Enlightenment philosophers, think of the world as God's machine. The conceptual constraints that cloud our vision of the physical world can be eased for the betterment of humanity in every sphere. Thus Condorcet, in an era still unburdened by complicating fact, called for the illumination of the moral and political sciences by the "torch of analysis." (24)

  • "The grand architect of this dream was not Condorcet, or any of the other philosophes who expressed it so well, but Francis Bacon. Among the Enlightenment founders, his spirit is the one that most endures." (Bacon was born in 1561.)
  • "By reflecting on all possible methods of investigation available to his imagination, he concluded that the best among them is induction, which is the gathering of large numbers of facts and the detection of patterns. In order to obtain maximum objectivity, we must entertain only a minimum of preconceptions." (25)
  • "Bacon elaborated on but did not invent the method of induction as a counterpoint to classical and medieval deduction. Still, he deserves the title Father of Induction, on which much of his fame rested in later centuries."
  • "Descartes showed how to do science with the aid of precise deduction, cutting to the quick of each phenomenon and skeletonizing it. The world is three-dimensional, he explained, so let our perception of it be framed in three coordinates..." (30) He felt that mathematics could describe all of knowledge, a vision that came to him in a dream in 1619... "he perceived that the universe is both rational and united throughout by cause and effect. He believed that this conception could be applied from physics to medicine - hence biology - and even to moral reasoning. In this respect, he laid the groundwork for the belief in the unity of learning that was to influence Enlightenment thought profoundly in the eighteenth century."
  • Newton (1684: mass and distance laws of gravity; 1687 the three laws of motion; and, really, the ability to predict just about anything. Co-invent calculus, why don't you! Oh...)
These two final paragraphs really blew me away:

Reductionism, given its unbroken string of successes during the next three centuries, may seem today the obvious best way to have constructed knowledge of the physical world, but it was not so easy to grasp at the dawn of science. Chinese scholars never achieved it. They possessed the same intellectual ability as Western scientists, as evidenced by the fact that, even though far more isolated, they acquired scientific information as rapidly as did the Arabs, who had all of Greek knowledge as a launching ramp. Between the first and thirteenth centuries they led Europe by a wide margin. But according to Joseph Needham, the principal Western chronicler of Chinese scientific endeavors, their focus stayed on holistic properties and on the harmonious, hierarchical relationships of entities, from stars down to mountains and flowers and sand. In this world view the entities of Nature are inseparable and perpetually changing, not discrete and constant as perceived by the Enlightenment thinkers. As a result the Chinese never hit upon the entry point of abstraction and break-apart analytic research attained by European science in the seventeenth century.
Why no Descartes of Newton under the Heavenly Mandate? The reasons were historical and religious. The Chinese had a distaste for abstract codified law, stemming from their unhappy experience with the Legalists, rigid quantifiers of the law who rules during the transition from feudalism to buueaucracy in the Ch'in dynasty (221-206 B.C.). Legalism was based on the belief that people are fundamentally antisocial and must be bent to laws that place the security of the state above their personal desires. Of probably even greater importance, Chinese scholars abandoned the idea of a supreme being with persona and creative properties. No rational Author of Nature existed in their universe; consequently the objects they meticulously described did not follow universal principles, but instead operated within particular rules followed by those entities in the cosmic order. In the absence of a compelling need for the notion of general laws - thoughts in the mind of God, so to speak - little or no search was made for them. (33-34)

I jot this all down because was naively surprised that someone actively came up with the process of understanding a phenomenon by breaking it into parts. (Later chapters show how you can take the parts and hope to predict what happens when they are built back up again.)

But who was it, then? Bacon, Descartes? Or since "...Bacon did not invent the method of induction...", who did? Some bronze-age proto-engineer? If we're not sure, why all this focus on Condorcet and Bacon and Descartes? Because they made the first strong deductive tools?

Wait, now I'm screwing up my terms. (Keeping in mind that inductive reasoning is arguing "down" to the general from observation, and deductive reasoning is arguing "up" from basic laws. This "down" and "up" mnemonic stems from how engineers think. The bits and atoms are at the bottom of our food pyramid; the product is at the top.)

The source of my astonishment is in what I thought the above discussion concerned: when did people decide to break things into elements? I thought that stuff went back tot he ancient Greeks.

I'm not sure I'm clearer on these things.

Or is that just how history works?


ps There's an engineering concept called "thinking in domains," such as the time-and-frequency domains, that is very useful and, frankly, a Big Deal. It makes difficult problems quite tractable, and I doubt there's been reason to apply that thought-model to non-mathy fields because, well, I don't see how you could. I am considering whether to write a brief post that explains this because it might be interesting to those of you who didn't major in engineering. Plus, it would keep me off the rough streets of Arlington.

01 November 2007

Just saying "hi"


Sorry, I'm going to indulge in a bit of traditional what-I-did-tonight-though-no one-should-care blogging to displace the usual 400 links at midnight.

After work, J-Fav, T-Fav, and I tried some of Trader Joe's "just heat it up" Chicken Fajitas and Carnitas (the latter being quite good). After helping a post-Halloween sleepy Toby to bed, we did an enormous garbage run and exhausted the evening's Tivo buffer (which fortunately held The Office but unfortunately not 30 Rock). I did a little personal website updating (new patent, woo-hoo!), and I searched the bookshelves of the house for two books that I just got but cannot, for the life of me, find: Edward O. Wilson's Consilience and Bob Southard's Ordinary Secrets.

Ordinary Secrets is a heartfelt book written by a businessman who, behind the scenes, spent many years quietly investigating meditation and reiki, traveling to beautiful locations to commune with nature, and mastering hypnotherapy. He distilled his findings - as "ordinary Bob" - into a collection of thought exercises and affirmations. It's very distant from the stuff I usually read, and I am enjoying it. Adding to the enjoyment is that Bob was a co-worker of mine, and I keep scratching my head over all the additional things we could have talked about if only I knew that these things were among his interests! Anyhow, you might want to pick it up. [amazon]

As I write this, it's a quarter to midnight. Eddie "Danger" Favalora (our cat) is curled up in a ball, sleeping on the blanket that J-Fav is snoozing under. Her inner clock magically puts her to sleep at exactly 11 pm, something she's demonstrated for eight years now. The only thing I manage to do at 11 pm is become more awake!

I am beginning to see why so many blogs are of this I-brushed-my-teeth-today variety. I will spare you except to add that I have kept with the two things on my "personal syllabus:" learning Mathematica and C++, although, frankly, I am unhappy with the C++ book I chose despite seeking the advice of experts on the xkcd fora. (Note to self: get C++ Primer Plus, and put down The C++ Primer!) The little makeshift study in our guest room has been a good place to hide and read for an hour each night.

It wouldn't be G-Fav's blog without a list of things to click on.

  • Geometry Wars is coming to Wii and DS
  • RLM points out The Mobius (several minutes of seemingly random activity at a Starbucks repeats for an hour)... I also liked Slo-mo Home Depot
  • Sugar Skull tutorial
  • A good graphic design laugh: "The best and worst (corporate) logo remakes of the century" (here)
  • How did I miss this? Tay Zonday's "Chocolate Rain."
  • "The New Nostradamus," an article in Good about an NYU politics professor, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and his extraordinarily good predictions about foreign policy (and other matters).


31 October 2007

Halloween 2007

Or.... "Cute Overload."

I know this blog is usually generic science stuff, but the family had such a fun time tonight that I'd like to share a few photos. Toby, J-Fav, and I went out for Halloween as Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat. Thank you, Grandma Kathy, for the costume!

After visiting a few houses with his friends, Toby became quite adept at grabbing big fistfuls of candy for his pumpkin that we'd lug around with him. Click here for a few photos:

2007 Halloween


29 October 2007

See a bright comet in your backyard

I'm really glad Oberon pointed this out. Comet Holmes just appeared - bright even in Bostonian skies - in Perseus (which is next to Casseopeia, the "W"-looking constellation). Here's how to find it. J-Fav and I found it in less than a minute with binoculars. Have fun!

I did a lot of stargazing in high school, and I admit this is a really funky one. It doesn't have a tail; it's big and white and fuzzy, in front of a backdrop of its pinpoint star neighbors.

(You'll need binoculars for this, unless you have good clear dark skies that will let you notice it's fuzzy.)


27 October 2007

Wff 'n Proof

Hi -

Have you ever played "WFF 'N PROOF: The Game of Modern Logic?" (Yes, Whiffenpoof fans, it was developed at Yale.)

When I was in elementary school, I found a copy of it at home. It purports to be a fun game, one that happens to result in teaching you something called "propositional calculus." It's designed for kids as young as six. I've tried four times to read the instruction manual for this game, and after all these years -- I'm 33 now -- I've only gotten to page 12. Of 168!

It is actually a collection of 21 games, each building upon the lessons of previous ones. I think I understand the first lesson, which teaches you to recognize WFFs, or "well-formed formulas." As the games progress, you improve your logical thinking skills. If anyone ever makes it to the 21st game, that person will be an absolute genius of logical thinking.

J-Fav and I get a kick, though, out of the 1960s linear-programming narrative in the four-page introduction:

Although the WFF 'N PROOF games were designed primarily to be fun -- to be an autotelic activity that learners would voluntarily spend time doing for its own sake -- they were also meant to provide practice in abstract thinking and to teach some mathematical logic. To the extent that WFF 'N PROF is autotelic, [Jeez, do I need to drag out my dictionary after all? -g] it will be played merely because it is fun to play - regardless of the fact that something useful is being learned in the process.
...There are a total of thirteen ideas introduced and used repeatedly in the play of the WFF 'N PROOF games: the definition of a WFF, the definition of a Proof, and eleven Rules of Inference (the Ko, Ki, Co, Ci, R, Ao, Ai, No, Ni, Eo, and Ei Rules). These thirteen ideas, which comprise one formulation of the system of logic called "propositional calculus" (abbreviated 'PC'), are presented very gradually as a learner proceeds through the series of twenty-one games. [zzzz...]

Any of you ever seen this game? It actually looks fun, and sort of kooky at the same time.

(If so, maybe you could tell me if the symbol "A" ("or"), as in "Apq", means "at least one of the following" versus "only one of the following." That is, Boolean OR is different from English OR.)

Hmm, if I were to make it to page 23, I could ponder: "The statement of what is proved by P2 is merely: From 'K-p-Kqr' and 'Kqr', it is valid to infer 'r'."


24 October 2007

uWink, evolutionary biology, Iron & Wine

From the creator of Chuck E. Cheese
uWink is a new restaurant franchise that attempts to incorporate computer screens, video games, and electronic tabletop ordering into your dining experience. It was developed by Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari. Check out the promo video. Does this entice you? Not me; do we really want less human contact when we're out to eat? (In my opinion, though, a "killer app" of in-restaurant PCs might be keeping your kids entertained, as shown at the end of their video.)

"Our fun, casual environment makes it easy for people to interact, have fun, play games, and enjoy delicious, reasonably priced meals. It's not a game arcade or pool hall. uWink is an interactive, social restaurant, where you are in control of your meal and your fun.

uWink provides delicious modern comfort food made with fresh ingredients ordered via touch screen terminals at the table and served by runners, quickly and accurately."

(This kind of that's-going-the-wrong-direction thinking reminds me of a chapter heading in a book about computer graphics we used to quote at work: "What we need around here is more aliasing!")

Stuart Kaufmann is the Director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics
...at the University of Calgary. His most noted contributions are in the field of theoretical evolutionary biology, and tend to be along the lines of exploring the inevitability of the creation of living things (rather than their extraordinary rarity).

"It turns out that the behaviour of genetic networks depends critically on the level at which the genes are connected. If they are heavily connected the system is chaotic, and if they are only lightly connected the system is ordered. An attractive hypothesis is that biological systems, like genetic networks, flourish in a “transition zone” between the ordered and chaotic regimes. I call this transitional phase the complex regime. So biocomplexity refers to biological systems that thrive in this balance between order and chaos. Other examples include the immune and neural systems."

Brief Q&A.

New Music: Iron & Wine
Been listening to a lot of Iron and Wine [YouTube video] for the last few weeks. Picked up "The Shepherd's Dog" during my Sunday biannual trip to Portland, ME. (Where I also was introduced to a new coffee drink: a strong mocha latte with banana syrup.)

Hand-Drawn Holography
Rekindled interest in this technique is explored at the Holography Forum, with links to YouTube clips of the holograms.


ps Oh, and: today, in the US, there are more people playing World of Warcraft than there are farmers.

pps As promised (and hopefully below the Dada comment threshold), there is a documentary about Helvetica. YouTube clip. Documentary web page.

19 October 2007

Weather, DNA, IQ

Hi -

I'm enjoying a good evening over here. It's raining heavily, and I'm upstairs in my new study working through a programming book.

As usual, here are a few links you might get a kick out of:

The creator of the MIT Press logo (and, you know, modern interactive media!)
"Muriel Cooper: The unsung heroine of on-screen style," in the International Herald Tribune.

Real IQ = (width)(height): David Gelernter
Check out Prof. Gelernter's submission to Brockman's "what's your equation?" piece. As you know, Gelernter is a pioneer of parallel computing, artificial intelligence, and has the awful distinction of being a target of the Unabomber at Yale.

Fashion versus Culture?
And this, from Stewart Brand.

A Tiny Do-it-yourself Motor!
From BoingBoing TV.

Irony: 111 Shirtless Men Shopping @ Abercrombie & Fitch
Check out this prank / art event / cultural statement.

Technology Review's expose on "quants" (quantitative traders)

Van Halen Pitch Mishap
If you like VH and get a kick out of snippy musical criticism, check this out & the accompanying brief writeup. Hah! "jump (in pitch)!" from rw370.

"How soon can I google my date's DNA?"
A few bullet points from the master of sequencing, Craig Venter, including "You have more individual bacteria living in your body than you do human cells."

This is some awesome weather
Alright, here you go. Weird bars of clouds (video).

Back to my books...

15 October 2007

Pop psychology; Personal syllabus

"Most Mammals Mark Their Territories With Excretions. Domesticated Primates Mark Their Territories With Ink Excretions on Paper." (p 68)

Ever read any Freud? Up on your stages of development?

I haven't, and really am not. Sure, I've heard about the concepts of oral fixation, imprinting, fight/flight, Alpha males, and even brainwashing, but really hadn't read even the most basic text about them.

Enter Robert Anton Wilson's Prometheus Rising, a sort of "owner's manual for the brain." It may be out of print -- my copy took months to get here from Amazon -- but you can download the PDF for free from this site (4 MBytes).

Written in an informal, swear-laden manual that reminds me of the hippie classic Steal This Book, Prometheus Rising summarizes the psychologies of Freud, Jung, and even Carl Sagan. I like it because it's full of insights that I wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

The book is structured on Wilson's discussion of eight (perhaps classical) brain "circuits," such as:
  • "The Oral Bio-Survival Circuit. This is imprinted by the mother or the first mothering object and conditioned by subsequent nourishment or threat. It is primarily concerned with sucking, feeding, cuddling, and body security. It retreats mechanically from the noxious or predatory - or from anything associated (by imprinting or conditioning) with the noxious or predatory..."
As he explains, "Of course, on top of the hard-wired imprinting of the bio-survival circuit comes 'softer' conditioning. This allows the safe-space perimeter to be generalized outward from the mother's body to the pack or tribe - the 'extended family.' | Every social animal has, in addition to the Darwinian 'instinct' (genetic program) of self-preservation, a similar 'instinct' to protect the gene-pool. This is the basis of altruism, and social animals could not survive without it. | ... | As civilization has advanced, the pack-bond (the tribe, the extended family) has been broken. This is the root of the widely diagnosed 'anomie' or 'alienation' or 'existential anguish' about which so many social critics have written so eloquently. What has happened is that the conditioning of the bio-survival bond to the gene-pool has been replaced by a conditioning of bio-survival drives to hook onto the peculiar tickets which we call "money.' | ... | Welfare-ism, socialism, totalitarianism, etc. represent attempts, in varying degrees of rationality and hysteria, to re-create the tribal bond by making the State stand-in for the gene-pool. Conservatives who claim that no form of Welfare is tolerable to them are asking that people live with total bio-survival anxiety and anomie combined with terror. The conservatives, of course, vaguely recognize this and ask for 'local charity' to replace State Welfare - i.e., they ask for the gene-pool to be restored by magic, among people (denizens of a typical city) who are not genetically related at all."

"On the other hand, the State is not a gene-pool or a tribe, and cannot really play the bio-survival unit convincingly. Everybody on Welfare becomes paranoid, because they are continually worrying that they are going to get cut off ('exiled') for some minor infraction of the increasingly incomprehensible bureaucratic rules. And in real totalitarianism, in which the bogus identification of the State with the tribe is carried to the point of a new mysticism, the paranoia becomes total." (52-53)

Anyhow, each chapter I've read introduces a new primal bio-circuit that is followed by a discussion of what behaviors it induces. A particularly interesting collection of chapters is about brainwashing, in which victims are re-imprinted (with loyalty to their captor) by bringing them to a defenseless, infant-like state and following a method outlined in the book.

There is also an ongoing discussion - a "layering" - of the impact of each brain circuit on one's personality; for example, he discusses a personality grid whose quadrants cover imprint types such as: Hostile Strength (I'm okay; you're not okay); Friendly Strength (I'm okay, you're okay); Hostile Weakness (I'm not okay; you're not okay); and Friendly Weakness (I'm not okay; you're okay).

Also... I haven't read Finnegan's Wake, and I know nothing about literary analysis, but you might get a kick out of his translating the novel's repeating nonsense sounds into strings of cuss-words of our early reptilian brains.

I'm clearly doing a poor book review here. I recommend you take some time out to flip through the text, whose PDF I attached above. It might give you a new perspective on your business meetings!

Do You Have a Personal Syllabus?
In reading some of your blogs, I notice that many of us are still configuring, in our 30s, how best to spend our 24 hours of a day to achieve various personal goals. (Which, after subtracting various demands, becomes 3-4 hours a day, or less.) I see you having hobbies, reading books, writing analytical papers, riding bicycles, raising children, and generally smelling the roses.

Do any of you have (for lack of a better term) a "personal syllabus?" Is there a collection of skills or knowledge you'd like to acquire?

Lately I've been splitting the two, sharpening my knowledge (say) of optics or more math than I was able to pick up in college and grad school -- but also wanting to read fiction, gain better limb independence in bebop drumming, programming in some real language (C++), blah, blah, blah.

Throw this into a blender and I get... nothing. Dilettante-ville. So I gotta pare down.

I don't know what the final reading list is yet. I can bench the optics for a bit, having spent many (many) hours with a few deep texts through which I've gotten to the point that I finally see that some things might just be approximate models of nature rather than some complete picture which fails to exist (and hence I just don't get it). I don't really have the opportunity to practice the drums seriously, either. This leaves me with:
  • C++ Primer (4e), a book on C++ programming staring back at me
  • An even thicker tome about a software application called Mathematica
  • Several math volumes that I've been paging through the years, which is an awfully unproductive way to learn things
  • The books Prometheus Rising and Consilience; and
  • A new private study, just for me, at home, which is a great recharging-area for an introvert like me.
Perhaps by setting these possibilities here I'll be more likely to pick a few homework assignments and stick to them.

Do any of you go through this pruning-of-intellectual-curiosities in the name of actual progress? Like, back-to-school, but at home?


08 October 2007

Note to Self: Vision Papers

Regarding the Fourier transform of (overlaid) stereo pairs:

De Valois, K.K., & Switkes, E. (1980). Spatial frequency specific interaction of dot patterns and gratings. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 77, 662-665. [pdf] (see esp. Fig. 1)

Marr, D., & Poggio, T. (1979). A computational theory of human stereo vision. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. (B), 204, 301-328. [pdf]


07 October 2007

Holiday Weekend Browsing

More East Coast vs. West Coast VC Arguing
The business equivalent of the Red Sox vs Yankees rivalry around Boston is the coastal financing superiority argument. Scott Kirsner reports on the latest, between Draper and Maeder.

A Non-Bullet-Point Presentation
"Inbox Zero" by Merlin Mann. [Lifehacker.com]

A Mass MoCA Exhibit and the Kitchen Lighting it Expires
Co-worker Josh has a nice writeup of a current exhibit and the interior design it inspired.

Nearly Real-Time Flight Tracking
This site is incredible. You can see continuous-time flight path tracking for any flight or any airport. Try it out: flightaware.com.

Simply Too Low-Brow Not to Link to (you've been warned)

Simply Too High-Brow Not to Link to (a tabloid about the West Coast VC scene)


05 October 2007

Airports, Oppenheimer, and the positron

First, did you see Safiri's note about airport paranoia?

Second, here's a passage from American Prometheus, a book about Robert Oppenheimer that my brother-in-law gave me. I hadn't known about his role in postulating the existence of the positron. (Oppenheimer's, not Bryan's. But one never knows.)

"On February 14, 1930, Oppenheimer finished writing a seminal paper, 'On the Theory of Electrons and Protons.' Drawing on Paul Dirac's equation on the electron, Oppenheimer argued that there had to be a positively charged counterpart to the electron -- and that this mysterious counterpart should have the same mass as the electron itself. It could not, as Dirac had suggested, be a proton. Instead, Oppenheimer predicted the existence of an 'anti-electron -- the positron.' Ironically, Dirac had failed to pick up on this implication in his own equation, and he willingly gave Oppenheimer the credit for this insight -- which soon impelled him, Dirac, to propose that perhaps there existed 'a new kind of particle, unknown to experimental physics, having the same mass and opposite charge to an electron.' What he was very tentatively proposing was the existence of antimatter. Dirac suggested naming this elusive particle an 'anti-electron.'

Initially, Dirac himself was not at all comfortable with his own hypothesis. Wolfgang Pauli and even Niels Bohr emphatically rejected it. 'Pauli thought it was nonsense,' Oppenheimer later said. 'Bohr not only thought it was nonsense but was completely incredulous.' It took someone like Oppenheimer to push Dirac into predicting the existence of antimatter. This was Oppenheimer's penchant for original thinking at its best. In 1932 the experimental physicist Carl Anderson proved the existence of the positron, the positively charged antimatter counterpart to the electron. Anderson's discovery came fully two years after Oppenheimer's calculations suggested its theoretical existence. A year later, Dirac won the Nobel Prize."


04 October 2007

Pseudo SRAM: Silicon7

Silicon7 makes (made?) Pseudo SRAM, which is a DRAM that's pin-compatible as SRAM. I.e., you don't need a separate DRAM controller. Here is the block diagram. I think this is cool; it evidently has the ease-of-use of SRAM but with just 1T DRAM transistors. (memory cell)

Somehow this company's existence escaped me, which is even more ironic given that their CEO was my advisor in grad school before I retreated from VLSI. Does anyone know the status of the company?


01 October 2007

"For the next problem, set your calculator to maths."

Hello, dear reader,

I wouldn't have guessed a few years ago that the blog I initiated to share little pointers to various technical nuggets of interest would become, well, a storefront for the comically absurd. In keeping with our absurdist tradition, then, I point you to something mentioned on BoingBoing, and for which I am much happier after viewing.

"Look Around You" is an utterly brilliant set of quite deadpan spoofs of 1970s science educational programs. I laughed so hard that the computer almost fell on the floor. The background music, the titles, the constrained design, the Technicolor color palette, the narrator -- they nailed it.

"What?" you say, "It's 10 minutes long?" Yes. 10 minutes. Sure, you could instead be making 3 1/2 bags of microwave popcorn in that time. But does popcorn make you laugh?

Look Around You 1 - Maths

Look Around You - Brain

Back from much recent traveling,


25 September 2007

CSI:maybe ... & MacArthur "Genius" Grants

Perspecta Display (may be) in CSI:NY Season 4
Hooray, set your TiVos to 10pm ET this Wednesday on CBS. Our Perspecta 3-D Display may appear in the season premiere of CSI:NY. Will Gary Sinise gaze into it to consider the remains of someone dead? Will it be a mystical crystal ball used by a fortune teller? Will its domed essence be left aside in favor of a car commercial?

I hope these questions and more will be answered Wednesday night.

[Update: Yeah! The Perspecta 3D Display appeared in CSI:NY, and it looks like it made it into the episode opening credits, too.]

From the Must... Try... Harder... Department
The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2007 "genius grant" recipients, $500,000 for completely unrestricted use that goes to artists, psychologists, historians, inventors, scientists... There is a summary CNN story as well as the Foundation's link with all awards. (Hey, it includes HowToons / Squid Labs' Saul Griffith.)

Past winners include Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Ornette Colman, Max Roach, John Hollander, Harold Bloom, Jim Blinn, Karl Sims, Stephen Wolfram, Stuart Kauffman, Lene Hau...

Get to work, people! :-)


23 September 2007

Passionate readers of the xkcd webcomic

This afternoon, somewhere between 400 and 600 people crowded into a postage stamp-sized playground in Cambridge to figure out what might be implied by this particular episode of the webcomic xkcd. Would wanting something make it real?

J-Fav, Toby, and I had fun amidst throngs of people wearing clever science-minded t-shirts, female engineering majors offering "raptor-free hugs," quite a few black fedoras, and many, many cameras. The GPS location in the comic pointed to a tall Buckyball-esque play structure that was covered by people by the time we arrived:


At one point, a mattress was passed to the top of the group. A live webcam and WiFi setup were taped to a nearby swingset, broadcasting the whole affair live. College reporters, a t-shirt station, even a guy dressed in chain mail was up a tree. Sure enough, as J-Fav predicted, the foam sword people arrived.

Here's a little Picasa slideshow.

Where is this post going? I don't know, and none of us really knew where the event was going, either. A few wore the shirt, "JUST SHY - not antisocial - (you can talk to me)," which was emblematic of the mood. Lots of shy techies smiling, hoping someone will engage them in conversation. J-Fav and I chatted with one guy, Joe, from WPI, who bemoaned the f/m ratio there (pi) and held a sign aloft in the hopes of getting a date. (See the aforementioned Picasa slideshow.)

Randall Munroe, the strip's artist/author, indeed appeared and announced to the crowd that yes, sometimes wanting something can make it real. He invited the masses to help finish the comic on a string of giant white panels & provided many a Sharpie to get the job done. A good time!

Already, hundreds of photos (see link a few posts in to general Flickr group) of the event are in a Flickr pool. Here's the thread so you can see more, which put mine to shame.

Alright, that's it. No more xkcd meetup news from me.

Unless, that is, if someone can explain to me why fedoras (espcially black fedoras) are nerd chic, even outside the realm of this comic.


20 September 2007

xkcd Meetup / Scientific American

Hello -

Just three things today.

xkcd Meetup this Sunday
If you are a reader of the romantic / nerdy / scientific webcomic xkcd, you probably know already that a gaggle of folks will be decending upon a tiny playground in Cambridge, MA at the location and time specified in one of the comics. If you "mouseover" a comic, additional text pops up. One of our office favorites is: about a cat. I have Tahnan to thank for pointing me to it, originally for a linguistics jab.

The discussion area with details about the meetup is here. (Look at the first post of the first "sticky" conversation.)

I think I'll be there. Is this weird?

I Broke My Rule

Arr! I broke my longstanding rule against buying magazines (since, usually, they are only a good way to throw away $5.) But I fell off the wagon today to buy a copy of Scientific American Reports: Special Edition on Nanotechnology. It looks pretty good! Keep an eagle eye out at those bookstores.

Frequency vs. Wavelength
This is an example of how not to assess kids' knowledge about science!


18 September 2007

The Timbre of our 30-something Subconscious

A post for Matthias and Brandon

If you were born in the 70s, these video clips might trigger some memories. I post them because I recall being fascinated with the sound editing of these PBS films back in 1st grade. In my opinion, sounds are just as able to "bring you back" to a time period as a color palette is (e.g., the way Polaroids make you think "this is seedy!" or Technicolor makes you think, "Hey, is this 1965?")

The Inside|Out series taught kids how to be introspective and considerate. I recall that each episode had a brief 2-second long high-pitched tone that would sound during psychodramatic freeze frames. Why on earth did I remember something I saw as a seven-year old?

If any of this resonates with you, check out the band Boards of Canada. Their songs are composed of so-called found sounds.

  • "Inside Out" Bully Part 1 (tell me you don't remember this!) The theme music is so deeply rooted in my brain that my spine practically gets goosebumps. The weird tone is around 4:00.
  • Ending credits for "Thinkabout"
  • The "Thinkabout" intro with the kid's glowing silhouette
  • A video history of several years of the PBS logo (was I the only person slightly freaked out by that P-Head thing?)
  • Opening credits of "Big Blue Marble"
  • Mark, Trini, and Lisa on "3-2-1 Contact"
  • Fine, here you go: "Great Space Coaster"
Ah, those synthesizers of our youth.


ps Here's a Boards of Canada video for you. It's all about the tone color.

If that floats your boat, try this and this.

17 September 2007

Reverse engineering nonlinear systems

(Note to self)

Bongard J., Lipson H. (2007), "Automated reverse engineering of nonlinear dynamical systems", Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, vol. 104, no. 24, pp. 9943-9948.


Complex nonlinear dynamics arise in many fields of science and
engineering, but uncovering the underlying differential equations
directly from observations poses a challenging task. The ability to
symbolically model complex networked systems is key to understanding
them, an open problem in many disciplines. Here we
introduce for the first time a method that can automatically
generate symbolic equations for a nonlinear coupled dynamical
system directly from time series data. This method is applicable to
any system that can be described using sets of ordinary nonlinear
differential equations, and assumes that the (possibly noisy) time
series of all variables are observable. Previous automated symbolic
modeling approaches of coupled physical systems produced linear
models or required a nonlinear model to be provided manually. The
advance presented here is made possible by allowing the method
to model each (possibly coupled) variable separately, intelligently
perturbing and destabilizing the system to extract its less observable
characteristics, and automatically simplifying the equations
during modeling. We demonstrate this method on four simulated
and two real systems spanning mechanics, ecology, and systems
biology. Unlike numerical models, symbolic models have explanatory
value, suggesting that automated ‘‘reverse engineering’’
approaches for model-free symbolic nonlinear system identification
may play an increasing role in our ability to understand
progressively more complex systems in the future.

(Another note to self)

Dear Future Gregg,

Young grasshopper, yo must resist the urge to buy songs like Rihanna's "Umbrella" and "Shut Up and Drive" from iTunes at 11pm. However, purchasing tunes like "Axel F" is just fine.

-Past Gregg

15 September 2007

The photography of "Everyday Italian" (now, with other stuff too)

Do you notice anything unusual or perhaps entrancing about the cooking show "Everyday Italian"? No, this isn't a note about Giada's [YouTube] ever-plunging neckline in what might pass in pruder regions as soft-core food porn. It's about the cinematography, or more accurately, the photography.

When I watch "Everyday Italian," I feel like I'm in a slightly disconnected and very pristine food universe. It's like looking over the shoulder of the production squad for the Ikea catalog. It's like eating sushi on a white plate while Philip Glass is piped into my cortex.

It's like having a conversation with the typeface Helvetica.

I've wondered why this is, and it is a little difficult to decode since I'm not trained in the vocabulary of film editing. This morning I spent some time considering it, and here's what I came up with: there are two factors at play. One is that the vocal narrative happens naturally, like a normal continuous time progression, but the editing is very discontinuous in time. I suppose this is normal for various how-to shows like "The Way Things Work," but I get a similar floating-in-outer-space feeling when I watch that, too. She's talking normally over images that skip forward through normally time-consuming processes.

The other factor is that there must be quite a few cameras rolling simultaneously, because the editing seems to anticipate exactly what Giada's about to do next. She reaches for a full head of garlic, and magically you see a closeup of perfectly-cut garlic in her hand. She moves toward a bowl of pasta, and the camera jumps several seconds ahead to a perfectly-framed image of two pieces of penne on her fork.

Sorry, folks, this stuff just really gets me. I don't know why. I'm wired funny.

Wondering if there's any truth to this, I poked around a bit online. It turns out that the show has won several Daytime Emmys for "Outstanding Achievement in Single Camera Editing" and "Single Camera Photography." I looked at the CV of one of the photographers, Richard Dallett, and he's been involved in quite a few award-winning documentaries. (Hey, he did a documentary on Elizabeth Bishop! Why hadn't I heard of that before?)

So I guess I'm not off my rocker...

A Collection of Things in the "Read Later" Folder

-g, who just realized I should have put "Bourne Shell" as the last comic below...