Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Time for a Break over the Holidays

It's time for me to take a break for a couple of weeks. There won't be anything here until early next year. 2011 promises more topics containing more links to the longer web for you to get lost in.

Enjoy the holidays!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Language: A Geek's Genre - Science Fiction

Every so often someone predicts that the genre of science fiction is dead or dying. It's become so cliche to assume that science fiction is not relevant or interesting anymore that Salon has an article entitled Is Science Fiction Dying?. Yet far from being a polemic against modern sci-fi or another death knell for the genre it is instead an example of the science fiction fan's third favourite pastime.

The first is reading science fiction and the second is commenting or arguing over science fiction.

The third favourite pastime of science fiction fans is categorizing science fiction and making endless lists. In the article Paul Di Fillippo surveys some recent books that fall under several categories. Going down that list I've added a few more books to my "to eventually read" list.

Should you doubt that science fiction fans spend time categorizing and listing may I present a perfect example of the lengths to which fans will go. The Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide looks like it hasn't been updated in several years. That doesn't make it any less the resource though. Starting from lists of authors (over 3,200) it includes lists of themes, magazine, and more. There is the obligatory lists of movies and tv shows as well.

One of the real treasures is the science fiction timeline. Starting century by century, and then decade by decade there are long detailed lists to get one thinking and reading. Lists of the major books released, authors who were born or died, tv shows and movies from the decade, and more. Between the book lists and the key dates you have the details to much of the history of science fiction.

While short and succinct there are wonderful little details everywhere. Many of the entries for individual books released in a year have short tidbits underneath. Sometimes mentioning the themes and the ideas involved, other times talking about the authors, and other times just pointing something out you may not have known. Here are a few examples from the 1960s:

1961 Stanislaw Lem: "Solaris" (Poland: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo) Intelligent extraterrestrial ocean is metaphysically beyond the attempts of humans to fathom in this enigmatic novel, made into a superior Russian film {hotlink to be done}
1962 Philip K. Dick: "The Man in the High Castle" (New York: Putnam) Arguably the greatest alternate history ("parahistory) novel. Here, the Germans and Japanese occupy a balkanized America, having won World War II. In a book-within-the-book, a novelist writes about an alternate world where America had won World War II. This Hugo Award-winner was written with the aid of chance or synchronicity (with Dick casting the "I Ching") and it has a nuanced view of Eastern and Western cultures. A disturbing and yet strangely uplifting masterpiece. 
1970 Poul Anderson: "Tau Zero" (Garden City NY: Doubleday) The greatest novel based on Einstein's Theory of Relativity and a modern conception of cosmology. Finalist for 1970 Hugo Award for Best Novel
The Multitude of entries like these are enough to make one realize just how much great science fiction has been written. Even if the naysayers are correct and science fiction is dead or dying there is so much to read and enjoy and think about that it will never truly leave us.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Math: Is Math Misunderstood?

Dr. Robert H Lewis at Fordham University wrote The Misunderstood Subject which is about how math is perceived by most people.

He makes a great case that math is misunderstood. It's not the formulas, it's not the exact steps, it's the process that's important. He gives several parables to make his point. He gives a good overview of how training and education differ.

What he doesn't do is continue the argument. He doesn't show what mathematics can do. Oh he talks briefly about computers but he only gives a technical example.

To my mind the essay is half complete. Give me the rest. Show me how the process of mathematics can help. Show me how it's applied. Show me how it helps. Then we won't just be defending the need for math education. Then we could be inspiring people to learn math.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Getting Mad at the State of Affairs

Bill Moyers is the epitome of the gentleman journalist in the USA. Insightful, sharp, and yet willing to let the story tell itself. He's been a fixture on television for so long it's hard to realize he's been off the air for a while. He surfaced in the midst of a year off to give the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture this year.

It's well worth watching. Not only because he points out the current imbalance in power politics in the USA but because it's amazing to watch the passion that boils to the surface. He draws inspiration from Howard Zinn himself and goes to show that the struggle itself is worthwhile even if the result isn't certain or doesn't seem possible. "It's okay if it's impossible."

Many of us on the outside of the United States looking in are worried about what's happening to a once proud and capable democracy. We see laws and rules, wars and fears, money and power politics, all of which seem to be out of place in a country as proud of its traditions of freedom and democracy as the USA is. It's good to see that some of the citizens of the United States are also worried. And angry. And willing to start doing something about the state of affairs.

Here's hoping the impossible happens in the United States.

Friday, December 17, 2010

But I Don't Like to Specialize in Only One Thing

Over the years I've become quite good at my job. Even if I do say so myself. I've been able to get better and better at my area of expertise. My real advantage though is that I'm a sponge for ideas, techniques, different approaches, and technologies. Knowing about a great deal has been a huge advantage.

Of course when I started in the field of computers it was hard not to have to know a bit of everything. The first hospital I worked for implemented a hospital wide computer system with five people in the computer department. That five included the manager (not even a director back then) and the secretary. There were two application consultants and myself. Now of course things are different. Computer departments in hospitals have lots of staff and the jobs are more specialized. Even so my strength has always been that I can understand and tackle almost anything because I've done a lot of different things on different platforms on different systems.

Which seems contrary to the overall trend in most fields. The trend seems to be to specialize to extreme degrees. Which I find sad. When it comes to troubleshooting, understanding, and dealing with complex systems the people I find the most capable are the generalists. Especially the generalists who know what they don't know.

Which is why Edward Carr's article The Last Days of the Polymath resonates. I don't claim to qualify as a polymath but I understand those who can cross between disciplines and realms and who don't specialize.

Even if we need specialists and monomaths we also need generalists and polymaths. For now the world belongs to the monomaths. Here's hoping the pendulum swings back but also finds a nice balance between the two extremes.

Science: Thinking About DNA

Explaining complex ideas to others is a challenge. Translating concepts from their original wording into something comprehensible by someone else is a difficult art. There is a long history of writers translating scientific concepts into layman's terms. But why stop there?

Why not take complicated and difficult ideas in one discipline and explain them in the complicated and difficult terms of another discipline? Why not let experts in one field get to understand the underlying concepts of another in their own native terminology? Especially since in some cases the underlying concepts translate pretty easily.

For example... DNA is encoded information. While it's not the "blueprint" of the human body it is information our cells carry around and use. It's instructions for the nucleus. Doesn't the term "instructions" sound close to the term "program"? Maybe, just maybe, there are ways to explain DNA and it's use in cells in terms that a computer scientist would understand.

Bert Hubert did just that in DNA seen through the eyes of a coder. Fair warning though. If you don't know about computers and information theory and a large chunk of computer technology as well as a little biology you will probably get lost. This is not meant as a slow and subtle crossing of the divide. You get dumped into the deep end and the terminology flows fast and furiously. If you do know quite a bit about computers DNA will suddenly make a lot more sense.

Bert also nails one of the issues I have with descriptions of DNA and cell division. I'm not a biologist but it always struck me that the typical description to the layman was wrong. We usually hear something like "when cells divide the DNA gets copied so that each cell has a complete set of instructions". Which is, of course, wrong.

DNA in a cell in not one copy of the instructions - it's two. DNA comprises two strands side by side. One is the opposite (or compliment) of the other. It's as if we carry around a photo of the instructions we need to run our cells as well as a copy of the negative of that photo. We carry both in each cell.

If I have a photo and a negative and I separate them then I can use the photo to create another negative and the negative to create another photo. I can take my two copies (the photo and the negative) and split them and make two sets of copies. Each set will have a photo and a negative. One of the sets will have the original photo and a new negative and the other set will have the original negative and a new photo.

DNA is roughly equivalent. Our cells carry two copies. When the cell divides the two copies are separated and each is used as a template to build its now missing opposite copy.

That long winded, and hopefully clear, description of cell division is nowhere near as succinct as Bert's computer related version:
Each DNA Helix is redundant in itself - you can see the genome as a twisted ladder whereby each spoke contains two bases - hence the word 'basepair'. If one of these bases is missing, it can be derived from the one on the other side. T always binds to A, C always to G. So, we can state that the genome is mirrored within the helix. 'RAID-1' so to speak.
See. It's can be easy to explain complicated concepts in one discipline in terms used by another discipline. Especially if the two disciplines are related.

If you are a coder, computer scientist, techie, programmer, or quite knowledgable on computer topics than DNA through the eyes of a coder will help explain the complex chemical dance of information that's taking place in your body all the time.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Food: A Modern Golden Goose

I don't drink much. I've never been much one to have much alcohol. I probably have 4 beers, a couple of drinks, and a couple of glasses of wine in an entire year. Obviously I'm no expert on drinks and drinking.

Even I've heard of Grey Goose though. At first it was just a name that kept popping up. People talked about it with semi-reverence. No one ever said it was any better than any other drink. It just seemed to be the new drink that was attached to someone with money and the willingness to part with it. For a while it seemed to be one of those things people bought and drank to show they could buy and drink whatever they wanted.

Considering the history behind so many brands and companies in the business of selling alcohol it's amazing to think that Grey Goose was dreamed up in 1996. It certainly isn't a Canadian Club (1854) or a Courvoisier (1835). Even so the story of Grey Goose and the mind behind its success is very interesting. The Cocktail Creationist tells the story of Sidney Frank and his attempt to recreate the amazing success he had with Grey Goose.

Maybe it's because I don't drink that I keep forgetting how much money is spent on drinks. Fortunes have been made and will continue to be made from the fermented elixirs that sell so well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Games: Oh What An Adventure We Shall Have!

No, this post isn't about the original Adventure nor is it about the recently released Get Lamp. Interactive fiction will have to wait for another day.

No, this is about adventure games on computers. Why they work and why they don't. Recently a couple of the best of the adventure style games were rereleased for yet another generation of platforms. Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2 have been updated for the most modern gaming consoles and yet they are still the same adventure style games at heart.

(As a pure aside... if you want to have fun understanding how far computer games have come and how primitive early home computers were by today's standards then watch this video of the evolution of PC sound technology illustrated through the music for Monkey Island. I think I owned most of the sound cards and technologies listed. I think I still have my Gravis Ultrasound somewhere. It's amazing how far we've come from bleeps and bloops to full orchestral scores.)

Replaying Monkey Island had me plunging through my bookmarks to find an article by Ron Gilbert called Why Adventures Games Suck. As the designer behind Monkey Island he should know why adventure games suck and what to do about it. After all Monkey Island, and several other LucasArts games, are considered classics of the genre.

Which then lead me to remember a much more recent article Sierra vs. Lucasarts by L.B. Jeffries in Popmatters. The difference in approach symbolized by those two companies really does help capture some of the basic problems and issues in designing and writing good adventure games.

Those two resources won't help you design the next great adventure game but they should help you understand what can make a good game work well. Sadly the genre seems half dead. Sure many other genres include lots of the elements of adventure games but as a stand alone genre the adventure game seems to have fallen out of favour. For now. There will always be stories to tell, games to play through them, and designers who want to do more than just give us wave after wave of enemies to mow down. There will be other adventures to play through we just may have to wait a little while.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Language: When Hack Writing Becomes Popular

Quick. Think of a book you loved as a child. One that entranced you, that you reread several times. One that made an impact on your formative years.

Have you ever gone back and read that book again? This time as an older, more mature, and hopefully wiser person?

Sometimes books stand up to the test of time. Other times we wonder how we even put up with them. We see how bad they were. How inane. How insipid. How uninspired.

Back in 2005 Gene Weingarten wrote about the awful books (as in awfully popular and awfully badly written) in the Hardy Boys series. The Hardy Boys The Final Chapter.... is a look at the true story behind a series that has captured boys imaginations for generations.

The article succinctly covers why I tend not to reread any of my childhood favourites. They almost never live up to what we remember.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Math: Representing Numbers

Mathematics is formulas and theorems, concepts and numbers. In today's world mathematics is also in computers. That is where the rubber hits the road.

Putting numbers inside of computers isn't as easy as it sounds. Putting decimal numbers into computers is fraught with problems.

Should you ever find yourself programming computers in a way where the computers are manipulating numbers for you please sit down and read What Every Computer Scientist Should Know About Floating-Point Arithmetic.

It's not as easy or as simple as you think. Let David Goldberg tell you about many of the pitfalls and problems in getting computers to represent numbers.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What is The Internet?

Wayne passed along a link that I had forgotten about. I remembered the powerful idea at the heart of the link but I had forgotten who had written it.

World of Ends: What the Internet Is and How to Stop Mistaking It for Something Else by Doc Searls and David Weinberger is an explanation of how best to understand the Internet.

The Internet isn't a bunch of wires and cables and companies hooking computers together. The Internet is a set of agreements that allow people to hook networks up to each other seamlessly. The result is that for all practical purposes the Internet is the collection of all the computers attached to each other. It's the collection of computers at the outside edge of the network.

You computer, your laptop, and your cellphone are all part of the Internet.

We tend to think of the Internet as Google, and Amazon, and Blogger, and our bank, and other sites. They see the Internet as the place were all their customer's are. It turns out the Internet is both.

Maybe the best way to think of the Internet is to think of it as the place where we all meet and connect. It isn't a thing or a place. It's where all the computers and people at the ends of the network build a collective on which almost anything can happen.

If you haven't red Worlds of Ends I highly recommend it. It may change how you understand the Internet.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Science: Science as it Happens

On December 2nd NASA announced research that may change our view of life. The announcement was about how a bacteria originally found in a toxic lake in California had, in the lab, started to use arsenic in its biologic processes instead of phosphorous.

On December 4th Rosie Redfield blogged about issues she had with the scientific paper that was announced to the public on the 2nd. Writing on her blog that covers research and research papers she expected only a few researchers to read about the issues she found with the original paper.

By December 7th Carl Zimmer, writing in Slate, started to cover the controversy over the original paper.

By December 8th Carl followed up his Slate article with a blog entry on Discover where he published replies from experts that he solicited for his Slate article. It's interesting to be able to read the replies of some of the critics of the original paper.

Normally all of this takes place behind the scenes. Papers go through peer review. Papers get challenged. Ideas flow back and forth. Ideas get 'corrected' or 'replaced' or get firmly set in place when they survive challenges. The ongoing consensus moves forward and the scientific view of the world may be slightly different than it was before.

Here in front of us is much of that discussion. Happening in public after a very public introduction of a research paper. (After all you can't get more public than a press conference). This type of dialog is not unexpected or unusual. What's unusual is that the discussion is so public and the pace of the dialog so fast.

Science as it happens right in front of our eyes. It will be fun to see what happens next.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Food: Should We Worry About the Banana?

Bananas are a staple fruit for many of us. Remarkably inexpensive and available all year round. There's some special about the banana.

That something special may be the downfall of the banana as we know it today. Which shouldn't be too much of a surprise because the banana we know today, the Cavendish, is not the banana we once knew and loved. Until the middle of the 20th century the banana of choice was the Gros Michel. A fungal infection called Panama disease almost wiped out the banana industry. Now there are warnings that the Cavendish may be in for some trouble. Panama disease has started to wipe out Cavendish bananas in some parts of the world. We may need to find another type of banana to replace the Cavendish.

The alarms have been raised for a while. National Geographic wrote about the problem in 2001. Popular Science covered the issue in 2005. The Smithsonian Magazine also covered bananas in 2005. In 2009 Damn Interesting had an article entitled The Unfortunate Sex Life of the Banana.

If you like bananas, and if you like the taste and texture of the Cavendish - the current banana, then you may end up telling tales about how bananas used to be and how they used to taste. That's if we're lucky. If we're unlucky we'll be telling people about this amazing fruit that was long and curved and yellow and that apparently had a peel that was very slippery.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Games: Video Game Critiques

It used to be so simple. You munched around a maze avoiding ghosts. The invaders were moving back and forth and getting lower and you shot at them and hid behind little crumbling fortresses. You killed the bad thing. Or you just aligned blocks or found the way out of mazes. Games were simple. If they stood for anything or had any deep significance it was usually in the mind of the beholder and not the mind of the creator.

In simpler times there were simple reviews. Was it worth buying? Were the graphics good? Was the gameplay challenging enough without being impossible?

Things are different now. Games have huge budgets. There are complex stories. There are themes and ideas woven into the fabric of games even when the game seems to be nothing more than "shoot the bad things and survive". Which leads to longer reviews and deeper critiques of games.

Good writers with good ideas and a good understanding of what's being presented in video games now have a chance to show us what's good and not so good about games. And I'm not talking about whether the graphics are up to par or not.

Case in point is Metroid: Other M - The Elephant in the Room by MenTaLguY and Tuvia Dulin. It may have started life as a simple review but it changed into something bigger and deeper. A critique of some of the underlying issues inherent in the story of this particular Metroid game.

Metroid is a series of video games in which the hero turned out to be a heroine. The main character is Samus Aran who goes around protecting the galaxy. Metroid: Other M takes that simple formula... and... well... let's say the writing isn't up to scratch and the new take on the character is a feminist's nightmare.

What's interesting is that this particular critique goes beyond taking aim at the bad writing and occasionally painfully bad scene and looks at the story in it's entirety. It's a worthy piece of literary criticism in it's own right.

It's nice to see well thought out and well written critiques of video games. It's nice to know the medium can deserve such treatment. It's just makes me sad that this particular criticism of the mishandling of a story and a character is even required.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Language: Talking at Cross Purposes...

For anyone who thinks language is easy to understand and the English language in particular... may I simply present Abbot and Costello's Who's On First.

No wonder computers can't understand human language. What chance do they have when we can't do it ourselves?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Math: At Which Point Does it Get Absurd?

In the ongoing game of "my computer is bigger and faster than yours" there seems to be one particular calculation that helps determine the winner of the game.

To calculate as many digits of pi as possible. Now I've mentioned pi before but not as something to calculate. One can never calculate pi exactly since it is a transcendental number. The decimal places keep going and going without repeating.

Which makes it a perfect number to calculate on computers because you can keep calculating it for as long as you like. There is no built in limit to how many digits you can compute.

Computing pi by hand is tedious and error prone. Nevertheless over time people sat down and did the calculations. Starting in 1947 or so computers also cranked out digits. Here is a short chronology of the number of digits calculated over time. This list ends in 1999 with a computer calculating 206 billions digits.

Eleven years later that number has been surpassed and not by a little bit. The current record for the number of calculated digits of pi is.... 5 trillion. That's 5,000 billions or 5 million million digits -(5,000,000,000,000).

Better yet it wasn't calculated on a supercomputer nor on a cluster of specialized machines nor on a specially built computer. It was calculated on a desktop computer in 90 days.

Granted it was a fully loaded desktop computer. The specs are within the reach of anyone with lots of cash and access to a computer store:

  • 2 Intel Xeon processors (12 cores total)
  • 96 GB of memory
  • 19 x 2 TB disks and 1 x 1 TB disk
And it ran Windows Server. Given similar (or better) hardware and a bit more time maybe you an calculate a new record yourself.

The story of the calculation, with details, some pictures, and access to the program that did the calculation is all here.

After years of these types of calculations being done on supercomputers and specialized machines it's interesting to note that home computers have progressed this far. I wonder who's taken up the challenge to calculate a few extra trillion digits? I wonder if somewhere there's another high end typical computer cranking away to set a new record.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Need a Good Story?

I was born and raised in Canada. As a result I tend to think that my literary heritage is the literature of the world and not just great Canadian material.

So when I stumbled across the Icelandic Saga Database. I knew I'd be reading for a while.

Go ahead... Get lost in a saga or two. And if you can read the originals just let me know how good the translations are.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Differential

Even seemingly difficult concepts and ideas can be understood if they are explained incrementally. This doesn't just apply to lofty concepts or ideas. Mundane mechanical wonders can be explained incrementally as well.

Take the sets of gears called a differential. It connects three rotating shafts. Think about a power train from a car's engine and a pair of wheels. The differential is the mechanism in the middle that takes the power from the engine and allows both wheels to turn.

But the wheels can each turn at different speeds. Which seems to be a neat trick to pull off. I certainly had no idea how a few gears can do that.

It turns out that in the 1930s there was a short movie that described the gears and, step by step, explained how they work. Spend a minute or two enjoying the synchronized motorcycles and in no time you'll be shown the basis of what seems to be a complex bit of mechanical engineering.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Science: Scale

To quote from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:
Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.
 The universe, or space if you like, is not only big but it also contains things that are very very small. The scale of our universe, and more importantly the differences in scale from the smallest things to the largest things, is vast and mind numbing.

Therefore it's best described with simple pictures.

In 1957 Kees Boeke wrote Cosmic View a small book that explores the scale of the universe in 40 drawings. There is also another online copy here. After the introduction and some preliminary text the book starts with a picture of a young girl with a cat on her lap. The next drawing is the same scene zoomed out 10 times. The girls is still at the centre of the picture but appears much smaller. It turns out she's sitting next to a couple of cars and a blue whale. Then the drawings keep zooming out 10 times to each show an area 100 times as large as the picture before.

It isn't man zooms before large parts of the solar system are in view. Each picture covers 100 times as much area as the one before. It's an amazing way of wrapping you head around the scale of the universe. After starting with a girl with a cat on her lap it takes 27 zooms to get to the size of the universe itself. 27 zooms of 10 times each. That's a huge number and a huge scale all in 27 pictures.

Kees Boeke isn't done yet. It's time to reverse the process. Again starting with the girl he now zooms in 10 times in each drawing. First zooming in on her hand and a barely visible mosquito. Zooming in takes 13 pictures. All told, based on zooms of 10 times, the universe's scale can be represented by 40 pictures. The difference from the largest to the smallest is mind bogglingly huge. It's hard to take in an appreciate in simple pictures.

Luckily we don't have to depend on simple pictures. We can depend on moving pictures to help us take in the scale of the universe.

Eleven years after Cosmic View was published two films recreated the same journey. Starting at a human scale, zooming out to the vast size of the universe, and then zooming in to the smallest scale we know off.

The more famous is called Powers of Ten. Made in 1968 (and rereleased in 1977 which is usually the date given for the film) it has a narrator give a running commentary on what we are seeing and what is happening.

I myself am more partial to the second film based on Cosmic View. Cosmic Zoom, a National Film Board of Canada production, drops the narrator and leaves the viewer to just watch the zoom and take it all in without interruption. Instead of starting in Chicago this zooms starts in the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill.

Whether you prefer Powers of Ten or Cosmic Zoom they both help give additional context (and dare I say it - scope) to Kees Boeke's original idea.

The story doesn't stop back then in 1968 when those two movies were made. There have been more recent views of the scale of the universe. An interactive example is The Scale of the Universe which allows you to scroll in and out at will.

Taking in the 40 or more powers of 10 that define the known scale of the universe is a humbling experience which helps, literally, to put things into perspective.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Food: Controversy in Chocolate

I'm not going to bother about whether dark chocolate is good for you or not. I prefer to think that all chocolate is good for you if taken in moderation.

I'm not going to talk about whether there is too much sugar and confection in our diets. Of course there are. I wouldn't have it any other way.

What I am going to talk about is how chocolate seems to invite controversy. Not for nutritious or dietary reasons though but for purely economic reasons. Let me give two examples.

The first is an ongoing controversy about a hedge fund, Armajaro, that is trying to corner the market for chocolate by buying vast quantities of it. This has been covered by, among others, The Spectator, The New York Times, and even various blogs.

The results are predictable. Chocolate and chocolate products will be more expensive. Chocolate bars and other retail treats will either weight less, cost more, or end up with lower amounts of cocoa products in them. Or some combination of all three. This is already happening and, if Armajaro can corner and influence the market, will continue. So get ready to shell out more money for your chocolate.

The second controversy is a bit older and is over how much chocolate can be worth. The chocolate in particular is not your typical candy bar chocolate but high end high quality chocolate. Just how much is it worth?

And more importantly... how do you know what you're buying is worth what you pay for it?

Back in 2006 on a blog called DallasFood there was a 10 part expose on one of the most expensive brands of chocolate on the market. Noka is a company that sells expensive chocolate. Very expensive chocolate. At the time they could even be called the most expensive chocolates available in the world.

The questions at hand were: Why is their chocolate so expensive? What makes it special and unique? And most importantly: Is it worth the price?

Sadly, 4 years later, the site has none of the content it had at the time. The 10 part expose is no longer online in it's original location. Like so many things on the web it was not long lived and hasn't survived. Various discussions about the controversy are still online.

A post on Metafiler was entitled Nice margins. The author of the expose posted a synopsis on Chowhound that started not just one long thread on the subject but at least two. One blogger, Robert Synnott, posted about the expose and quickly noticed one commenter that seemed to have been commenting, and defending Noka, on several sites. The Consumerist covered the expose. All in all a good time was had by all.

The best synopsis is on the Straight Dope's forums entitled The emperor's new chocolate which covers the expose, the PR flack, and more.

All in all a wonderful synopsis. However it's only a synopsis.

Luckily even if sites come and go and even if things are no longer online at their original location the internet has a bit of a memory. The original ten part post exposing what Noka was doing and how they were taking good chocolate that was going for $10-$15 per pound, making their own pieces and putting them in fancy boxes to be resold for up to $2000 a pound is available at the internet's Wayback Machine at

The first part, with links to all the other parts of the expose, can be found here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Games: Computer Games are American Right?

My early days with computers were positively cross Atlantic. My first computer was an Acorn Atom (the predecessor of the BBC Micro), I then migrated to one of the first PC clones. After time spent on DOS and Windows (among other systems) I moved on to the Commodore Amiga which was a favourite in Europe. I  used computers and program from both sides of the Atlantic.

One British game in particular kept me busy for quite a while - Elite. One of the first vast open games where you could do whatever you wanted. Back in 2003 The Guardian excerpted a chapter of Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford which tells the story of the creation of Elite.

Even though I was there when Space Invaders and Pac-Man and other simple repetitive arcade games were all the computer games there were it's hard to remember. We're spoiled for choice now. I think I'm starting to feel old. I almost wanted to start a sentence with "when I was young" or "when I was your age".

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Language: It's Not Just What You Say, It's How You Say It

I suppose that we're spoiled for choice when it comes to putting our ideas on paper or on screen. Just look at the number of fonts you have at your disposal. You can be serious, silly, or fanciful. You can evoke a past period, make things look modern, or strive for a futuristic look. Even choosing among bloggers few available fonts took me a while. The typeface something is written in makes a difference.

Most of us choose our typefaces for completely new writing or works. What happens when someone needs to choose a typeface to emulate the past? What happens when someone is tasked with faking a piece of the past and making it authentic?

Welcome to the world of movies and television set in the past. It turns out that set and prop designers don't always get period details correct. Typecasting: The Use (and Misuse) of Period Typography in Movies over at Mark Simonson Studio looks at some of the attempts to recreate the past. He's subsequently followed Typecasting with a series of blog entries under the category of Son of Typecasting.

I'm not sure I'll ever catch myself complaining about fonts in movies but I'm glad someone is paying attention.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Math: Fun With Serial Numbers

Look around you. How many things near you have serial numbers? Almost anything technical or technological has a serial number. We take it for granted that many manufactured items have been numbered.

What can you do with those numbers? One story tells of how the allies in WWII were able to estimate the production of German tanks by collecting the serial numbers off of destroyed or captured tanks. There are a few variations on the story. Each has slightly different numbers in involved. In 2006 Gavyn Davies explained the math in the Guardian. If Wikipedia is to be believed there was additional math involved that even looked at an estimate of the number of molds the Germans had to make tank wheels.

What about using serial numbers in the present day? Is there information hidden in modern serial numbers? Could you get enough serial numbers to uncover this information?

The answers are yes, yes, and yes. Thanks to the internet it is easy to ask lots of people to type in serial numbers. Once there are enough of them... the investigation begins. Here's what can be found out from the serial numbers from a large number of Microsoft XBoxes.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Who Invented the Personal Computer?

I'm not sure you can credit any one person with inventing the personal computer. Should we track down who first had the idea of a personal computer? Would that be a science fiction writer or futurist? Or would you want to find someone who envisioned something that could actually be made at the time it was dreamed up?

Do you select people who became rich and famous early on in the personal computer era? Steve and Steve or maybe Bill?

No matter what your own view a strong case is made by Ian Matthews for choosing Chuck Peddle as the inventor of the personal computer.

If you're asking yourself "Chuck who?" and you know a little of the history of personal computers than I can give you a quick answer. Chuck Peddle designed the 6502 microprocessor. That is only the beginning. Ian does a marvelous job building his case.

I am left with another question though. How many other relatively unknown people have changed the world of computers, or our world in general, and not received the credit due to them?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

They Call it "The Demo"

In 1971 Intel created the 4004 the world's first microprocessor. In 1975 the Altair was the first home computer kit. The Apple II appeared in 1977.

All of which makes Doug Engelbart's 1968 demo even more impressive. A GUI, a mouse, controlling a computer over a network, the concept of WYSIWYG, cut and paste, key combinations, manipulating files, and much more.

I'm not sure whether Doug and his associates completely invented the modern computer and the modern computer interface from scratch... or whether his ideas were so good no one has bothered to advance the state of the art much. So much of how we interact with our computers is just a refinement of what Doug demonstrated in 1968. Sure it's faster, slicker, and prettier today but that's to be expected.

Without further ado... may I present... The Demo.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Science: Common Sense does not equal Science

It seems impossible at first. When you hear that it should be possible your brain tries to cope with an idea that seems contrary to common sense. The idea?

You can build a wind powered car (no batteries or hidden power sources) that can be pushed downwind by the wind and move faster than the wind.
You can build a wind powered vehicle that can have a 10 mile per hour wind behind it and yet travel faster than 10 miles per hour.
It just seems wrong. It can't work... can it? The idea is known as downwind faster than the wind or DFTTW. Until this summer the debate ranged far and wide over whether or not the concept was feasible or possible.

If you think about it for a moment there are hints that it could be possible. For example let's take the example of a sailboat. Now I sailed quite a bit. Mainly in small one or two man sailboats. Sailing away from the wind is no faster than the wind.

If you are sailing south with a 10 knots per hour wind at your back and your sail is set 90 degrees to the wind then you can go no faster than the wind. The sail is acting like nothing more than a giant board sticking into the air and being pushed directly by the wind.

But if the wind is coming from the north at 10 knots per hour and you are sailing east... then the sail isn't just a giant obstacle for the wind. Then the sail is an airfoil or a wing. Then sailboats easily sail faster than the windspeed.

So it is possible for a sailboat to move faster than the wind. The trick is can there be a car or device that can move downwind faster than the wind?

The answer was put to rest (I hope) once and for all this summer when Blackbird set an official record by going 2.8 times faster than its tailwind.

The story of how Blackbird became to be built, and the story of the fights over whether DWFTTW is even possible, are detailed in A Long, Strange Trip Downwind Faster Than the Wind in Wired magazine. Rick Cavallaro's tale includes links to various discussion boards and forums where the issue was (and may still be) hotly debated. He also digs into the history of attempts to prove (with math and physics) and show (with models or cars) that the feat is possible.

It's a wonderful read. Of course now we know it can be done. During the discussions and arguments people were faced with something that didn't seem possible. It seemed wrong. It violated common sense. It didn't seem right.

The world around us doesn't operate based on our common sense notions. Nor does it have to do so. The universe is unexpectedly wonderful and many things that don't seem possible are actually quite simple. The hard part is convincing people of that.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Food: A City's Most Popular New Cuisine

I live in one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the world. I love Toronto for many many reasons. Not least of which is the choice of food.

I remember going to one of the first Ethiopian restaurants in the city. Now there is many of them and people debate which one is best and which one is most authentic. A couple of years ago I stumbled across a collection of Tibetan restaurants right around the corner from an established Polish neighbourhood. It can be a tough decision when figuring out what type of cuisine to have when you go out to eat. Though people have figured out ways to solve this problem.

But that's just restaurants. One type of dining that hasn't caught on in Toronto (yet) is food trucks. Trucks that pull up and start serving a variety of food to whomever is passing by. Sure we have ice cream trucks and sure we have some street vendors for hotdogs and the trucks that cater to construction sites and factories but food trucks haven't hit here yet. I'm not sure whether it's because of by-laws in place or lack of licenses or just a lack of people wanting to start up food trucks as a way to make some money.

A long time ago (as in less than a decade) if you ran a food truck your best bet to build a repeat customer base was to park in the same places day after day. Find a good spot with lots of repeat customers and you might build a customer base. Now (as in the last few years) technology has come to the rescue. People will track down particular food trucks no matter where they are. And the food trucks have responded by making sure their customers know where they are.

Which leads to sites like Find LA Food Trucks (and their blog) which collects the twitter feeds of the trucks around Los Angeles (when technical issues don't derail them temporarily).

Yes... twitter feeds. The most common technology for trucks to update their current location and status has become twitter. It somehow seems appropriate that one can follow one's favourite truck.

However food trucks, with or without twitter and other technology, can cause problems. Washington D.C. is working out the problems and issues with having flocks of new food trucks appear on the roads. Inside D.C.'s Food-Truck Wars gives the background and the current situation in a city where food trucks have started to become popular. I just wonder if, or when, Toronto will have to start dealing with the same issues.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Games: Changing the Rules of a Classic

I never got very good at chess. Sure I learned the rules and a little strategy but I never went far beyond that. I didn't put in the time and the effort to become even remotely competent at chess.

Where I did put some effort into chess was in problems. The idea that people could put together puzzles to be solved caught my attention for a little while longer than chess itself did. Trying to work which moves to make to force checkmate focused my attention.

What really caught my attention was fairy chess and fairy chess problems. My copy of Five Classics of Fairy Chess by T.R. Dawson is well worn and well read. Somehow it really helps that chess problems be presented in a barely post-victorian manner.

What is fairy chess you ask? Well... chess is a game played by a set of rules. Some so basic we take them for granted.

  • There is a board of a certain size. 64 squares in a square with 8 rows and 8 columns.
  • There are certain number of certain pieces that move in certain specific ways with specific abilities and limitations. The knight is the only piece that can jump over other pieces.
  • The moves themselves alternate between white and black. Each player moves one piece on their turn. (With the exception of castling).
  • Capturing is performed by moving one of your pieces on top of one of your opponent's pieces.
  • There is a fixed goal - to win and not to lose. This forces the rule that kings can't be moved into mate.
All of these rules are well known and well understood. This is what chess is. But what if you decided to change one or more of those basic rules? After all they are just conventions and rules of the official game of chess.

That's where fairy chess comes in. The term fairy is meant as in whimsical or a flight of fancy. Chess problems with altered rules and expectations are sometimes just called fairies. Fairy chess tends to focus on chess problems in which the rules have been changed. What changes can be made? Pretty much take the list above and tweak it.
  • Change the size of the board. Limit the squares that can be used in the problem.
  • Add new pieces with new moves and abilities. From grasshoppers to nightriders, from generalized leapers to all sorts of exotica.
  • There are problems called helpmates where your goal is to help your opponent put you in mate as soon as possible.
And the list goes on and on. As I mentioned fairy chess was, and still is, interested in chess problems. Altering chess itself to give a slightly new game also has a long history. The two seem to overlap a great deal. What one person calls a variant another may call a form of fairy chess.

If you want to explore many variants with new boards, pieces, and rules, the best place to go is The Chess Variant Pages. Start at the main index page and start exploring. There is 3D chess, one dimensional chess, recognized variants, and so much more. I apologize in advance if you end up spending hours looking into and then trying variant after variant. Have fun.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Language: The School Essay or How To Say Nothing

We've all had to write essays for school. We all sat down at a screen and keyboard, or a typewriter, or with a pad of paper and... and... wondered what to do next to get this assignment over with. There were times when I didn't know what to do next. You probably found yourself in a similar situation once or twice. Luckily there's help.

Paul Roberts wrote books on linguistics and language all while teaching English to college students. If there is anyone more qualified to help you write an essay I don't know who it is. So may I present his classic entitle How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Math: The Games People Play

There are quite a few branches of mathematics. One that has caught my interest on more than one occasion is game theory. Game theory tries to understand how and why people react in certain circumstances. It's about strategic thinking. It's about games we play every day.

Why do we decide to do what we do? How do we judge what is the best course of action? It sounds a bit vague and hard to capture in equations but it is a branch of mathematics.

A Chronology Game Theory has been put together by Paul Walker. It starts with game theory in the Talmud and moves on from there. Mainly it's a collected bibliography but it gives a quick overview of the subjects covered by game theory.

A more detailed work is Roger McCain's Strategy and Conflict: An Introductory Sketch of Game Theory. This started as a work from which to teach an undergraduate course in game theory and eventually ended up rewritten as a complete book. Even before the rewrite it stands as a good guide to the ideas and principles of game theory.

Pretty soon you'll be up to speed on the Prisoner's Dilemma and Tit-for-Tat. At which point you'll either be a better strategist in the areas where game theory is helpful or you'll be even more confused than before. I'm not responsible for what happens.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

John Cleese on Being Creative

I could say all sorts of things but I'll let John Cleese do all the talking as he gives some insight into being creative.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Winnie the Poohski?

Under the category of "I couldn't make this up if I tried" may I present several Russian animated cartoons from the late 1960s and early 1970s staring Winnie Pooh and Piglet.

Yes... Russian animation staring your favourite cartoon bear. The first example shows us that Piglet carries a gun, the second ponders deep philosophical thoughts on the nature of existence and the protocols of visiting friends, and the third (part 1 and part 2) introduces Eeyore.

Watching these videos is a surreal experience but well worth it. They present a slightly different way of looking at the characters you thought you knew.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Science: The Best Idea So Far?

Bill Nye, otherwise known as the science guy, recently received the 2010 Humanist of the Year Award. At the ceremony he gave a speech called The Best Idea We've Had So Far. Which is, unsurprisingly, about science.

Far be it from me to be at odds with the self titled science guy but I do have a quibble. He says:
It is, absolutely, to me, the best idea humans have had. Science. I’ll even say science is the best idea we’ve had so far. It could change, right? Got a better idea? Bring it on.
I agree with one caveat. To me science is not just the best idea we've had so far. I think the reason it's the best ideas is that science is based on the understanding that the current scientific view of the world is the best understanding we have so far.

Science is not about proving what we currently know. It's not about finding the missing details. It is the process of finding the best view we can come up with so far. Twenty years from now science will have brought us a different view of the world. One that's more refined, more detailed, and more elegant and wonderful than the view we have now. One hundred years from now people will look back and say "can you believe they thought that is how the universe works?". They'll scoff and make light of our ignorance. But the only reason they will have a clearer view is because science will have constantly corrected, updated, refined, replaced, and changed our current view.

If science continues correcting and refining then we'll always have the best idea we've had so far. It will just always be a different best idea so far.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Food: But is it Still Bad For You?

One of the eternal unending battles over food will always be whether fast food is good for you or not. Should we cook for ourselves? Is there something inherently wrong with prepared food? Is it bad that we've managed to have so much food so cheaply available?

One part of the fast food battle that I will concede on is that fast food rarely looks or tastes good. Luckily there is help available. Fancy Fast Food (tagline: Yeah, It's Still Bad For You - But See How Good it Can Look!) takes fast food and transforms it into amazing looking creations. The trick seems to be to take several items from a particular fast food restaurant and then combine, alter, bend, fold, and/or mutilate until... voila... something that at least looks much more appetizing than the original.

It's quite amazing what people can do with fast food. After taking in Fancy Fast Food you may never look at cheap and inexpensive food quite the same way ever again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Games: Who Has That Much Time?

I'd like to call your attention to the quaint game of Line Rider. A simple online game in which one draws lines for a little guy on a sled to follow.

Well... not so simple. There are three kinds of lines. Those on which the sled just slides, those on which the sled accelerates or decelerates. and those which are just there for decoration. Skilled people spend hours getting all the little line segments lined up so that the little sled does all sorts of amazing tricks. To get a sense of what can be accomplished watch Millenium by DaPoe, Transcendental by TechDawg, or Line Rider Die at the Slopes by D4N3Train. If you want some idea of how the tracks are put together watch a short tutorial on track making.

If that doesn't blow your mind then may I present The Line Rider Community Collaboration's Evolution of Line Rider. Give people a creative tools and it's amazing what they'll come up with.

And while I don't have the time, energy, patience, or ability to make Line Rider do amazing tricks and stunts (nor the creative ability to fill in interesting backgrounds) I'm very glad that some people do. And that those people get to share with the rest of us.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Language: Putting Words to Use

Think of some of the uses of language. Think of how great ideas and concepts can be shared amongst people. Then think of some of the seemingly less great uses of the English language.

Like computer and software documentation.

Well let me be fair. Amongst all the horrible documentation there are some very good ones. But I don't want to point you to some good documentation and say that's that. I'd rather point you towards some writing on how to create good documentation instead.

First up is Writing Great Documentation by Jacob Kaplan-Moss. Next up is Brian Forte's How to write really good documentation: Four rules and an axiom which takes us through the rewrite of a couple problematic paragraphs while explaining good documentation.

Lastly there is Writing and Programming - Next of Kin from which summarizes something I've said for years. That writing and programming use the same parts of your brain and follow the same sort of steps. I've used programming to explain writing to techies and writing to explain programming to non-techies. They really are next of kin.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Math: Who Needs the Exact Answer?

The point of knowing mathematics is to get the answer to problems right? Preferably the correct answer. Otherwise what's the point?

Mathematics isn't just an end in itself. It isn't something to learn so you know math. At its most useful mathematics is a tool that lets us do other things. It's a tool that gives us insight into the world around us. Learning to use math as a tool not only makes it more practical but much more useful.

Which is why Sanjoy Mahajan's book Street-Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving (Creative Commons pdf) is such a great read. Working through various approaches to help make informed guesstimates and improve your mathematical problem solving skills he makes practical math skills much less intimidating. If you want a very practical book to help you improve how you use math, instead of just how to improve you math skills, then I suggest Street-Fighting Mathematics.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

People Used to Think War Was Noble?

We consider ourselves progressive. We're so much more moral than those who came before us. They were misguided and naive. Only we, the current generation, are able to see through the lies and deceit to unveil what is really going on.

Yeah right. Give me a break. Just as now there are those who think war is good and noble and those who see the other sides of war.

After all wasn't it Eisenhower who coined the term the Military Industrial Complex in a very prescient speech in 1961?

Or better yet... give War is a Racket by Major General Smedley Butler a read. It started as a speech he gave across the US and it became a book that was published in 1935. And in case you think the Major is unqualified to talk about the realities of war please note that he is one of the few people to be awarded two Medal of Honors.

It turns out people were as conscientious and knowledgeable then as we think we are now.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Follow Up: I'd Like to Solve the Puzzle

Guessing the exact amount of a Price is Right showcase is difficult. Use a combination of known prices for some items and good rules of thumb to estimate the price of others and mix in a little luck that put the last few digits in place and you may just be able to guess it correctly. It may not be likely but we can imagine we could do it.

The one letter Wheel of Fortune solve is another matter. Guess a phrase with just a single letter? I don't know how to do it. Even more amazing, as Chris Jones (who wrote the article about the Price is Right) relates in his article Was the Wheel of Fortune One-Letter Solve Really a Miracle?, it turns out that Caitlin Burke didn't even need that single letter.

She knew the solution before she spun the wheel. In fact she was worried the contestant spinning before her would solve it first.

Myself... I'm going back to something simple and easy that is completely built on chance like Deal or No Deal.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Science: Can Giraffes Swim?

Giraffes are rather popular. People like giraffes. I don't know if giraffes like people that much. In any case that isn't the point of this post. This post isn't about research on whether giraffes like people. This post is about research to decide whether or not giraffes can swim.

So what is the point of this post?

Well I could talk about the ability of computer models to help explain and predict phenomena that haven't yet been observed. I could talk about how seemingly random and inexplicable research may yet end up with practical outcomes (though I think I'd be stretching the point). I could talk about the wonderfully absurd research done by scientists with too much spare time on their hands. I could talk about how it doesn't matter if giraffes can swim if they don't want to, don't like to, or never learned how to swim at summer camp when they were growing up.

Instead I'll leave the explanation of the research, details into how it was done, and some humourous conclusions and insights to one of the authors of the paper. Darren Naish discusses his peer-reviewed scientific paper in Testing the flotation dynamics and swimming abilities of giraffes by way of computational analysis.

I will however point out that Darren Naish is affiliated with the University of Portsmouth in the UK and his co-author Don Henderson works at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller Alberta. Neither institution nor their surrounding locals have many giraffes to worry about. Let alone swimming giraffes. Still... should the Bow River flood in the nearby city of Calgary the zookeepers at The Calgary Zoo will know who to contact in order to find out if either of the two species of giraffe living at the zoo on St. George's island will need to be rescued by boat.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Food: Misunderstanding Science Misrepresents Food

If you haven't heard the story of the McDonalds Hamburger that's over a decade old let me send you off to read the original story.

Now I don't know what you think of the story but I find it absolutely incredible that someone who is teaching kids about nutrition can be so wrong. Yes... Karen Hanrahan has a McDonalds hamburger from 1996. Yes... it's preserved and not rotten after more than a decade. Yet from that she spouts things like:
Ladies, Gentleman, and children alike – this is a chemical food. There is absolutely no nutrition here.
Not one ounce of food value. Or at least value for why we are eating in the first place.
Or how about this one:
McDonalds fills an empty space in your belly. It does nothing to nourish the cell, it is not a nutritious food. 
Is it just me or am I the only one who thinks that a piece of cooked food allowed to cool and dry off and left in dry environment will stay self preserved for much longer than you might expect. To me this isn't amazing or shocking. It's expected.

As for McDonalds being chemical food... that's your proof? No chemistry or analysis? Just uneducated and unproven claims? And what the heck is "food value" anyway? Is she saying there is no nutrition at all in a McDonalds hamburger? That there are no useful calories?

Please don't let people like her anywhere near my kid. I'd rather have the educated teach the young instead of the overly reactionary.

Let me debunk this in two ways. First lets consider McDonalds and the quality of their food. McDonalds does more than you might expect to make sure their food is of the highest quality. You may not like the results but you can't fault McDonalds for not taking food quality and safety seriously.

I'm not suggesting that McDonalds has our best nutritional interests at heart. That's not what I said. I said they take food quality and safety seriously. Not only because it's how they work with suppliers, McDonalds pioneered the concept of working with providers to deliver a guaranteed profit on goods sold as long as they were produced and prepared to McDonalds standards. But also because McDonalds knows how bad a public relations nightmare an outbreak of unsafe food would be.

It's in their corporate best interest to keep their food as safe as possible. It may not be the most nutritional meal on the planet but that's not what their selling. They are selling burgers. With patties made of nothing but lean beef. With toppings and a bun.

And for that we assume it's the worst meal on the planet and scare our kids away with bogus claims that it is "chemical food"?

No wonder I fear for our kids. It's not them I worry about. It's the people who educate them.

As for the burger "self-preserving" itself... may I turn things over to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats with The Burger Lab: The Myth of the 12-Year Old McDonald's Hamburger and The Burger Lab: Revisiting the Myth of The 12-Year Old McDonald's Burger That Just Won't Rot (Testing Results!). Who dispels the myth that McDonalds burgers do this because they something special. Any thin beef patty that is cooked and allowed to dry out quickly will resist rotting.

Amazing how a quick experiment (with different burgers both homemade and from fast food restaurants) can completely overturn over the top unproven rhetoric anytime.

Now can we get back to enjoying our food please? Or at least discussing food issues based on facts and science and not the random wailings of someone who should know better?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Games: The Making of a Game That Kept Me Up Nights

Long before cheat codes and walkthroughs there were video games that you could spend a long time playing and figuring out. One that kept me up for hours on end was DMA Design's Lemmings.

If you want a taste of the original Amiga version of the game there are online videos available. The game had a simple premise. Lemmings fell from a trap door onto the field of play and then walked directly and unflinchingly to their impending doom. Instead of walking to a door to freedom they would simply walk in one direction until they hit a wall. When they hit the wall they'd turn around and keep walking. On some levels they would just be stuck walking back and forth between two walls. In others they'd walk into traps or fall into water or lava.

You had to give some lemmings commands and others abilities in order to save as many lemmings as possible. Each level had a time limit and a certain number of all the lemmings that you had to save. Save to few or take too long and it was all over.

The puzzles started simple but soon became very difficult. Fiendishly so. I'd often look up after finally solving a level to see the sun rising and a new day starting. It also helped that the sound effects were cute Even making lemmings blow up when required was cute. I still love the "oh no!" just before a lemming would blow up into a bunch of pixels. However the sound effects were one thing. The music was another completely. It was wonderfully additive.

How addictive? Well... people are still performing the music today. On piano, keyboard, piano, guitar, and even electric guitar. Myself I prefer mp3'd version of the original Amiga mod files (ftp of the mod soundtrack and ftp of the mod extras) or rips of the CD versions of the tunes from The Lemmings Chronicles. Both of which are on my iPod and other music players.

For more history of the actual game I suggest Mike Dailly's The Complete History of Lemmings which is part of his The Complete History of DMA Design. There you will find the backstory to one of the games that kept me up at night.

Oh... and don't think you're safe because the Amiga is no more. Lemmings has been ported to quite a few computers and consoles with more versions to come in the future. Sooner or later you might find yourself trying over and over to save those little lemmings from destruction.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Language: Can You Know Too Much About a Poem?

On one of my many bookshelves sitting side by side are several books that explain writings in their historical context. The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner explores the classic work by Lewis Carroll while Asimov's Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan takes a look at the context of Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas.

I find both books, and several more like them, incredible reading. Regardless of how well I think I knew those texts having details and context makes them all the more interesting to read. Context adds to my appreciation and understanding of the text.

This isn't just post modern deconstruction of the texts. This is placing a text and its author into its original time and place.

But how much background detail and explanation is too much? At what point do scholars add more to the work than the author intended or understood? Just because an author likes to mention flowers does it have to have some significant meaning? How much is too much?

I raise these questions because there is a fantastically detailed exploration of T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Richard A. Parker notes that:
Since T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land was first published in 1922 readers have had difficulty following the poem (and thus, in many cases, considering it rubbish). Part of the difficulty in understanding The Waste Land is due to Eliot's use of allusion. By taking the view that allusion is actually a different form of hyperlinking I have translated The Waste Land into a hyperlinked presentation.
And what a presentation he leaves us with. It's a view of the poem with details of allusions, seemingly endless cross references, comparisons of the finished poem to Eliot's draft, and much more. More information than you might have thought possible.

But is it too much? Of course one can just read the poem without the additional notes and explanations and just be left as befogged as one was before. Shouldn't there be a more gentle guide to The Wasteland? Something between the poem itself and a scholarly masterpiece?

Or should we leave poems without explanation and without exploration of the poet's use of allusion, metaphor, and the knowledge people would have had back when the poem was written? I find myself wanting to find the middle ground. Maybe someone can explain and introduce the great poetry of past ages without making me feel like there's volumes of explanation behind every line.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Math: The Power of Video

I've talked about the power of video in education before. It's amazing how watching a good teacher can made things seem so much easier. Here's a couple of example dealing with calculus.

Let me start with the absurd. All of Calculus in 20 minutes. Yes it's a promotional video for a calculus course but don't let that bother you too much. I'm certainly not endorsing this as the way to embrace powerful new ideas. Still it's fun to watch so much crammed into a few minutes.

A much more useful introduction to the ideas behind calculus is from MIT's Open Courseware. Professor Gilbert Strang put together a few short videos to introduce the big picture behind calculus. There is also an entire calculus textbook he wrote available.

Unlike calculus in 20 minutes that makes things almost impossible to follow I find that Professor Strang makes it seem that it will be easy to learn. Which is all I ever asked for from a teacher.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Don't Read This if You Are Afraid of Flying

It's not about crashes. Though it mentions how some can happen. It's not about disasters or problems during flights. Instead it's about one of the most amazing aspects of flying.

While in a banked turn passengers can't tell that they are turning if they don't look out the window. Unless you see the outside world, or have an instrument in front of you, everything feels completely normal.

Which leads to all sorts of potential problem. William Langewiesche wrote about The Turn in 1993 in the Atlantic. He tells us why we don't feel anything and why that has been a problem over the years. He also briefly covers the history of instrument flying and the long journey from flying by the seat of one's pants to trusting one's instruments.

If you like flying and like airplanes then The Turn is a fascinating article. If you're scared of flying it may be a completely different matter.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Neurologists Deals With His Own Brain

Oliver Sacks is probably the most well known neurologist. He's written amazing books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales and Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

His research and writing is fascinating but not as fascinating as he is himself. Even more so now that he's telling the world about some of the problems or issues he has with his own brain. For one thing he suffers from face blindness and for another he recently had a rare eye tumor. He has now lost all vision in his right eye.

So now a celebrated neurologists who writes about the oddness that occurs in the brain of others has written about the oddities of his own mind. To get a sense of the man and his journey through cancer of the eye I suggest listening to a long interview with Terry Gross of NPR.

Not many other people are as qualified to analyse and tell us about their own journey through loss of site as Oliver Sacks is. He gives an insight into not only what was happening to his vision but also why it was happening. It's well worth a listen.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Science: Insight Into the Spirit of Science

It's a simple question. One we ask as children. One some of us still ask as adults.
Why is the sky blue?
Simple. Direct. To the point. There should be a simple answer. Maybe someone could just tell us why and we'd be happy.

But a really intelligent man would answer the question while taking you on a tour of why it's such an interesting questions. Pointing out simple aspects of the sky you might not have thought about. Taking you down little detours that shed light (so to speak) on many things you may not have known about. All while doing so in a manner that we can understand, appreciate, and grasp.

In December 1968 C.V. Raman delivered a lecture for the Foundation Stone-laying ceremony of the Community Science Center in Ahmebadad. The Nobel laureate gave a speech called Why the sky is blue (and a scanned pdf).

I don't know a more wonderful excursion through physics, physiology, the world of colour, some astronomy, and much much more. All in a short speech that shows how a scientific view of the world can lead to wonder, awe, and amazement. I can't imagine how one could have listened to it and not wanted dig deeper and know more about everything.

It's well worth the read.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Food: When Not To Take Forwarded Emails Seriously

It's been making the rounds again. An email telling people how to eat fruit. Apparently we don't know how to eat properly and we need to be told. In this case we're being told to eat fruit on an empty stomach.

It didn't pop into my radar again via email. It caught my attention when more that a few people took the email and popped it into their blog. It seemed to have become popular again late in 2009 and early in 2010. Here are just a few examples of how this long running email is now part of the web.

What really caught my attention was one attempt to debunk the bad science in the email. Always eat fruits before a meal?? The science behind false claims by Akshat Rathi is a wonderful piece. Still nothing quite beats Snopes for getting to the bottom of the whole affair. It turns out the original was written in 1998 and, as in many of these rogue emails on health, the authority quoted in it was at best a charlatan and at worst a fraud.

I don't know if we'll ever get rid of bad and spurious advice. I'm not sure science and medicine will ever come up with the 'best' diet and the 'healthiest' foods. Even if there was one perfect diet that provided perfect nutrition I'd still be wandering from it to enjoy many of the culinary wonders the world offers.

And I'll eat them whether my stomach is full or empty!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Games: The Red Rings of Death

I'll confess I don't have an Xbox nor do I have an Xbox 360. I'm a Sony guy at heart in the last several generations of consoles. Though I do have a Wii as well for when I want to flay around in an ungainly manner. Back in the earlier days of the console wars I was the owner of a Sega Genesis and its various upgrades.

There were several reasons I decided against the Xbox 360 when I thought about buying one of the latest generation consoles. The primary one was the type of games that I like to play. While I play a little of everything I'm not as enamoured of the first person shooters as I once was. I also am drawn to turn based RPGs and rather quirky offbeat games. At the time the PS3 and Xbox 360 hit the market Sony had many more of the games I like in its catalogue. So I chose to stick with Sony and the PlayStation 3.

The other reason I didn't get an Xbox 360 was the sheer number of them that needed to be returned and replaced. It seemed like the majority of people who had bought a 360 had to have it replaced or repaired. I can't think of any other recent consumer electronic device that had so many problems. Not only did it have problems but they didn't go away for a long time.

Making that type of mistake for such a long period of time cost Microsoft a great deal both in terms of reputation and in terms of money. Actually Microsoft paid a great deal when it came to the Xbox. Not only to cover the costs of so many broken Xbox 360s but also to just get into the console gaming market.

Inside story: The birth of Xbox is a series of reminisces from Ed Fries who was the vice president of game publishing at Microsoft. While not a comprehensive history it gives glimpses into what went right with the introduction of the Xbox to the console market.

Xbox 360 defects: an inside history of Microsoft's video game console woes is a much longer article. It looks at what went so wrong with the introduction of the Xbox 360. Not many companies have the deep pockets to get themselves out a mess as bad as the Xbox 360 debacle.

I'll stick with my PS3 and Wii for now. I may change my allegiance when the next generation of game consoles appears on the market. Or I might way to see if any of the new ones have teething problems like the 360 did.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Language: The Power of Words - Journalism

Great words change the world. Great poems and prose have had a lasting impact. But what about journalism? The words of the fourth estate can change the world. It can be a noble enterprise. It can also be a for profit business that isn't always so noble. Either way it represents one of the most powerful uses of language.

Two articles caught my eye on journalism. Two articles on completely different aspects of journalism they somehow manage to remind me how powerful stories, ideas, and words can be.

You'll never mistake the words used by the National Enquirer as belonging to any other publication. Given a few minutes I'm sure you could write up a headline or two that could only come from that tabloid. It has a rhythm and style of its own. It also seems to operate in a world of its own. A world of scandals and the most outrageous stories.

It's hard to believe that it was in the running for a Pulitzer prize. In All The Dirt That's Fit To Print Alex Pappademas tells of the story that was up for the Pulitzer, the particular culture of the Enquirer, and gives us a little bit of history along the way.

The second story is about television news. Or more importantly about a particular television news channel. The Most Hated Name in News by Deborah Campbell is about Al Jazeera English (AJE). The main angle of the story is about Tony Burman. A Canadian with impecable journalistic credentials has moved from the CBC to AJE. The man who not only broke the story of the Ethiopian famine to North American audiences but also helped put a face on the famine with some truly unforgettable images.

Whether written in a tabloid or spoken on a 24 hour news channel some of the most important words of our time are the words of journalists. For every politician, for every press release, for every great work of fiction, for every poem or song, for every bit of satire and parody, and for every bit of spin we should be lucky enough to have good journalists putting out their own powerful words.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Math: It's Not Important... It's Just Math Right?

Mathematics may be the most pure of the sciences. Formulas, notions, suppositions, and conclusions. It seems so abstract and not very real.

After all algebra has its letters and geometry has its points, lines, and circles. All abstract constructs. But math can be very applicable to the real world. Correct and accurate math is even more applicable.

Take the idea of insurance. I'll pick fire insurance as an example. The math is really simple. If you have 1,000 homeowners paying in to fire insurance policies then you need to make sure that you get in more than you will have to pay out. How do you determine how much you'll have to pay out? First figure out how much each fire claim will cost you. Then figure out how many claims you'll get per year for those 1,000 homeowners. Put the two together, work in some extra to run your business and some extra for profit and voila... you can run an insurance company.

Of course real life is more complicated than the simple math would indicate. The type of house, the size, the construction, the neighbourhood, the wiring, the fire alarms and smoke detectors, and any number of other variables make some houses more risky than others. As well there are average years with a certain number of claims but then there are exceptional years. Some with fewer claims and some with many more claims than is typical. You have to be able to pay up when an entire housing division goes up in smoke.

Getting the math right is crucial. Getting the complex, convoluted, and well thought out math right is even harder. If you're insurance company manages to get it right you'll end up covered during disasters instead of watching your insurance company go bankrupt and not be able to pay out claims. Catastrophes can cause problems for insurance companies and not just the immediate victims.

The Acts of God Algorithm by Art Jahnke tells the story of a new better way of looking at risk. Especially catastrophic risk. It's amazing what happens when someone looks at an old problem in a new light.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's Just a Painting

How do you look at a painting?

Do you look at it and take in the picture at face value? Do you start by trying to take in the whole and then looking for any details that catch your eye?

Do you try to understand it? Is deconstructionism your approach to paintings? Are you trying to understand what the painter was trying to convey? Are you interested in the meaning of the imagery of the work?

I don't think there is one right way to look at a painting. There are many. One way that I'm not well versed at is to look at the painting in order to find out how it was done. To look for the techniques. To look for the choices and decisions the painter made. This approach is a bit more technical in some respects but it's no less fascinating.

James Elkins wrote How to Look at Mondrian. A close up look at what appears to be a deceptively simple painting. It won't help you answer all the questions about the meaning of the painting. It doesn't go in to deconstruction of the concepts and ideas. It does give insight into the techniques and choices Mondrian made.

I'll never look at a simple collection of stripes and colours quite the same way ever again.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Very Powerful Cocktail

In the complex web of history around World War II there are many intriguing story lines. There are threads with unintended consequences. In 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland. This invasion helped convince Hitler to invade the Soviet Union in 1941.

Why did the Soviet invasion of Finland help convince Hitler? Well... the Soviets had a very hard time invading Finland. The Finns essentially fought them to a draw and then negotiated a settlement. If a small band of Finns could hold off the Soviet Union, and in fact could humiliate it, then it must be easier to conquer then was once thought. The logic seemed flawless.

The logic was wrong of course. How one nation invades another is not necessarily a reflection of how it will defend itself on its home soil. How well the Soviets would fight to defend their homeland was different than how well they fought to invade Finland.

The logic was also wrong because it assumed the defeat of the Soviets was mostly due to the Soviets themselves. The tenacious ability of the Finns wasn't considered as important.

And were the Finns ever tenacious, tactically sound, and able. A Thousand Lakes of Red Blood on White Snow by Arto Bendiken is a wonderful explanation of how able the Finns were. It's an amazing story and you're guaranteed to learn some details you never knew before. Do you know why volatile liquid in glass bottles with a lit wick is called a Molotov Cocktail? Arto will tell explain. All while showing how a small nation of determined people humiliated one of the world's superpowers to defend their country and their way of life.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Science: The Opposite of Big Science

For a while it was the new science buzzword that managed to get the attention of the media and the public. Nanotechnology. The idea that very small technology could do wonders if only we did some researchon the few remaining unsolved problems.

That soon nano-factories and non-production would solve lots of our problems. That soon nano-robots would be inside our bodies performing nano-repairs and keeping us healthy. The future would belong to nanotechnology if we threw some money at it.

Just some money. That's all it would take.

Well... years later nanotechnology isn't as big a deal as its proponents said it would. Why isn't it a big deal? There are different approaches to explaining the problem.

One view is held by Scott Locklin. In Nano-nonsense: 25 years of charlatanry he characterizes the entire nanotechnology-will-solve-everything movement as vapourware. Now the article is inflammatory. Maybe deservedly so but it is still inflammatory. Even as he points out real problems with nanotechnology he has fun doing so:
Much of his thesis seems to be hand wavey arguments that his “looking rather a lot like a meter scale object” designs would work on a nano or small microscale. I know for a fact that they will not. You can wave your hands around all you want; when you stick an atomic force microscope down on nanosized thingees, you know what forces they produce. They don’t act like macro-objects, at all.
Or one of my favourites:
Little real thought was given to thermodynamics or where the energy was coming from for all these cool Maxwell-Demon like “perpetual motion” reactions.
So one view of why nanotechnology hasn't appeared as predicted is that it can't. The promises and ideas were impractical and maybe even impossible from the start.

Another view, one that criticizes Lockin, is that the reason there are no wonderous advances in nanotechnology is that the money that was to be used in nanotechnology research never made it there. The premise of Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle or Robert Freitas Are not to Blame When Billions spent on Ordinary Chemistry Was called Nanotechnology Work- You Got What You Paid For is obvious in the title. Brian Wang is of the opinion that the money that was originally going to be used to fund 'true' nanotechnology research made its way through Congress and the Senate and came out as money to be used for general chemical research. Since the money didn't get put to solving those few remaining problems that needed solving we haven't reached that promised future.

Of the two explanations the first has a truer ring to it in my mind. Nanotechnology proponents never explained how little nano machines were going to run. They never explained the power sources. They never explained how little nano factories and production equipment could survive the harsh environment of the world around us. Too many good and reputable scientists and technologists found problems with promises for my tastes.

As to the 'misappropriated' research money I have an alternative way of looking at what happened. Nanotechnology was a buzzword. It had captured the imagination. The word itself, and maybe the overly ambitious promises, did push lawmakers to throw money at the problem. Then, as part of the process of vetting the proposals and getting them through Congress and the Senate, the money was directed towards 'ordinary chemistry' and other worthwhile endeavours with a much better chance of results that would be useful and productive.

What Brian Wang defends nanotechnology for not being what was promised because the money wasn't spent on nanotechnology. What he doesn't say is whether the money ended up being put to a much better use in other areas of chemistry.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Food: The Perfect French Fry - part 2

Okay... so what happens when an overly equipped techno-foodie-trained-chef decides to create the perfect french fry?

Well for one thing the goal wouldn't be to emulate McDonalds.

No... the goal would be to create the best french fry ever. To scientifically check and recheck results. To apply unexpected tools and techniques. Such as sandpaper. And for anyone who wanted to look into the science and technology of the matter there would be a bibliography.

I'm not kidding about this. Don't believe me? Then go read David Arnold's The Quest for French Fry Supremacy, Part 1, and Part 2: Blanching Armageddon at Cooking Issues.

Oh... and in case you want to look deeper at the wonderfully insanity that comes with having way too much technology in the kitchen and you are looking for a place to start reading Cooking Issues may I suggest the four post epic on cooking a whole turkey - part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

Why is the Turkey series epic? Well... after determining the best temperature and the optimal cooking time they (and I can't believe I'm typing this) bone the turkey and replace it's bones with aluminum tubes that circulate hot cooking oil. All so that the turkey is cooking from the inside before it is then also immersed in hot oil to cook it optimally.

Yes... to make the perfect turkey they make a bionic turkey. It's well worth the read.