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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Games: The Pitch That Makes Boys Cry

Baseball is not as simple as it looks. There is a lot of strategy and skill hidden on that peaceful looking diamond. One of the rarest skills is the pitch called a knuckleball. The knuckleball dances in the air and is not only hard to hit it's even hard to catch.

One of the best knuckleballers at the moment is a Chelsea Baker. She's 13 and maybe the best little league pitcher in America. How good is she? Why is she so good? Ask ESPN who took a look at her in In a league of her own. The article is good - the video is even better.

 If you want to know more about this most elusive part of baseball give Project Knuckleball from 2004 in the New Yorker a read.

Who knows... in a few years a lucky major league team may have Chelsea on the mound making grown men cry with her knuckleball.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Language: The Value of Online Writing?

There is a great deal of writing online. From tweets to Facebook updates. From blog posts to comments. From forum entries to corporate speak. All that and more is online for our consumption.

When it comes to text online there seem to be some sites that manage to make things interesting. These sites are able to make what they present valuable to us as readers. But what makes a valuable read? What captures our interest and then informs us? What characterizes some of the good writing online?

Alex Krupp took a stab at coming up with an answer in his post How writing creates value. I'd argue the title is a bit misleading. It's more an analysis of a certain type of writing online and its characteristics. I certainly think there is much writing of value that doesn't fit into his category. Most fiction wouldn't fall into the category of writing he's describing. But for those trying to make a dent online and have their writings read and appreciated... he gives interesting points to ponder.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Math: Benoit Mandelbrot

Not many people can say they've added a word to the language of the world. Not many of us can create a word that sticks. Certainly not many can come up with a word that somehow captures complicated subjects and makes them seem accessible. Benoit Mandelbrot did that with the word fractal.

The word invokes complex and wondrous pictures. Colours exploding on computer screens and created by simple mathematics applied with the repetitive power of computers. The word hints at how the images are self similar at different scales - you can see smaller (or fractional) versions of larger objects as you zoom in. It's a word that sounds good and works well.

Benoit Mandelbrot passed away at the age of 85 ten days ago. His legacy in the world of math and finance is an impressive one. But to many of us he will be remembered as the person who gave the world fractals.

Let him tell you about it in his own words.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Let The Wookiee Win

I've brought up Star Wars before once or twice. There seems to be an insatiable appetite for new Star Wars shows, games, toys, and anything else Lucas Arts can license.

For the die hard fans of the first movie there is also an insatiable appetite to learn more about how George Lucas took some weird ideas and turned them into the classic movie that first took us far far away. I've mentioned the early treatments and scripts as well as Michael Kaminski's Secret History of Star Wars all before. But it turns out the research is ongoing.

Case in point is a very well researched article called George Lucas Stole Chewbacca, But It's Okay. I'm not sure I'll look at Han Solo's pal quite the same way ever again.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Computer That Travelled To The Moon

The first computer I spent much time in front of was a 1mhz 6502 based computer with 12K of RAM and hooked up to a TV to display 256 by 192 black and white pixels and all programs were loaded and saved to cassette tapes.

Yet that was huge compared to the computer that controlled the Apollo Lunar Modules. The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) had 2048 words of magnetic core memory and 36 kilowords of read only core rope memory. The interface was a few rows of segmented displays that showed the contents of some registers, some blinking lights, and a tiny pushbutton keyboard.

That's it. That's what it took to get two people down to the moon and back up again.

It turns out there are simulators and emulators that allow you to use almost every variation of the AGC ever produced. You can marvel yourself at one very compact and amazing piece of programming.

In case you want to know a bit more about the AGC and what it took to make it work may I suggest Tales From The Lunar Module Guidance Computer by Don Eyles. If you want to understand the design, the programming, and the decisions that went into the AGC there is no better place to go.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Science: Maybe We Don't Know Bleep...

When it comes to misapplying science I have two particular beefs. One is that people take theories that they barely understand, let's say evolution, and apply it without much thought. The other is that people confuse technology with science.

Let me say this clearly. I'm sure I'll get back to it sooner or later. Science isn't technology. Science can be moved forward with technology. But science doesn't need technology. Great ideas and great thought experiments don't necessarily need technology to be worked on. The opposite is also true.

Technology isn't science. You don't need to know science to use technology. The principles of combustion are not required in order to light a fire. You don't need to know about computer chips and programming to use your cell phone.

So normally if I came across someone misusing the idea of evolution and confusing science and technology I'd be complaining.


Except that Joe Rogan of all people manages to make a very valid point about our society, technology, science, learning, and our future. And all while making me laugh. Go watch him discuss the devolution of stupid people.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Food: The Perfect French Fry - part 1

Say what you like about fast food. You may disapprove. You may think that the food is bad for people. You may think it's an affront to cuisine and good eating. But you have to admit it's never been so easy for people to get fed for so little money. Inexpensive calories for anyone at anytime.

Plus many of those calories are very tasty.

One of the standards for tasty and inexpensive cuisine, possibly the gold standard for the longest time, is the McDonalds french fry. Crisp yet fluffy. Hot but not overly greasy. Remarkably dependable no matter where you go. With so many people loving McDonalds french fries you had to know there would be imitators.

It turns out it takes a lot of work to imitate the golden arches. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt went on a quest to create the perfect french fry at home. A fry that was as close to a McDonalds fry as possible. The quest involved industrial espionage (getting samples of still frozen McDonalds fries for analysis) and the realization that some of the steps that the person at home can avoid may help the process (Freezing before the second frying, like McDonalds does to get the fries to the restaurants, helps a great deal). The result is The Burger Lab: Hot to Make Perfect Thin and Crisp French Fries over at Serious Eats.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Games: Living The Experience Without Playing the Game

It started on Something Awful. People would play through a video game while taking notes and pictures and post the results in the forums. Known as Let's Play these are not walkthroughs in the traditional sense.

A traditional walkthrough, as exemplified by Game FAQs, is a document that tells you step by step how to complete a video game. It tells you the tricks, points out the traps, and is told from the point of view of one gamer helping another. Want to know how to get past a tricky section? Read the walkthrough. Want to know how to get the ultimate magic sword? Read the walkthrough.

Want to be told the story of the video game instead of the steps needed to beat it outright? Potentially with running commentary by the author? Then a Let's Play is for you.

Since the Something Awful forums have a reputation for holding on to precious historic content with all tends to suggest the admins would hav brought matches to the Library of Alexandria others have taken on the job of archiving and maintaining the list of "Let's Plays". Thus the Let's Play Archive was born. Collected here are text Let's Plays and video Let's Plays. Yes... you not only can read along but in some cases watch as someone plays a video game for you.

Don't let that fool you though. Yes... some of them are pretty bland descriptions of playing the game. Many do explore the game and its world in detail. There can be interesting running commentary while the game is being described.

There is also a few places where the Let's Play has a life of its own and becomes a truly memorable event above and beyond the game in question. Case in point is the tale of horror that is The Terrible Secret of Animal Crossing. You'll never look at a fun little game quite the same way ever again.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Language: You say Tomato and I Say...

I keep forgetting the spoken word. When I think of language I tend to think of writing. Prose and/or poetry. The majesty of the written, or typed, word. I keep forgetting the spoken word.

There's a whole different dimension to the spoken word. There's pronunciation involved. How one says the word and which sounds are used make up an important part of spoken word that is hard to capture in prose. It's not only hard to capture different dialects and pronunciations when writing prose it's also hard to capture what's happening to dialects and pronunciation all around us.

Which is where the Dialect Survey comes in. Or more specifically the results of the survey. This survey was conducted earlier in the decade and the results are for the continental US only but... I warn you you could get lost in the results of this survey for several reasons. First there is the geographic spread of how various words sound but mainly it's the questions themselves.

How did the writers of the survey determine which pronunciations to track? How did they decide on which  word usages to look at? The questions themselves are fascinating.

My other question is whether this research has been followed up. Can we start seeing trends and changes in usage and dialect? Or will there at least be other similar surveys by others which will allow us to watch the English language change over time?

Will surveys like this help us remember what we all used to sound like decades ago before English slowly but surely changed all around us?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Math: Learning to Read

Every discipline has its own way of presenting ideas to the world. In science, for example, the ideas are presented in a form that is so well known it can be parodied. (I can still crack certain people up just by saying "chicken chicken chicken").

Math has it's own format and structure for presenting ideas. Knowing that there is a structure and an approach is one thing. Being able to make sense of it and work your way through math is another. Luckily Shai Simonson and Fernando Gouvea have written a primer to help that's simple titled How to Read Mathematics. Not only does the authors offer advice but they walk you through understanding a few simple math problems to see how you one understands math writing with practical examples. It's well worth the time and effort to wrap your mind around.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Science: We Know More Than Bleep You Know

I'm leery of those who take science and try to extend what they learn into areas completely disconnected from the original material. I'm sure that Einstein had to roll his eyes thinking about how people misapplied and misused his theory of relativity.

Of course if you want to try to lend scientific credibility to your particularly offbeat and unscientific ideas it helps to use a part of science most people don't understand. The more modern and obscure the better. The more seemingly wild ideas in the theory you can apply to your own pet theory the better.

Which means that the modern scientific theory most often misapplied is.... Quantum Mechanics.

John McGowan has written an article entitled The Quantum Mystics in which he goes after those that misapply Quantum Theory. What sets him off on his journey is the 'documentary' What the Bleep Do We Know?.

He does a good job trying to explain what Quantum Mechanics theory actually says and the problems it leaves unanswered. There is math involved, and understanding the math helps a great deal, but the prose around the equations does a very good job at explaining the issues at hand. Don't get scared away because there are equations.

There are parts of the article I'm not sure I agree with. I can't challenge the math or the science nor do I think I need to. He meanders a bit when talking about 'crypto-mysticism in mainstream physics' and he goes off on a tangent that doesn't seem to add or detract from his arguments until that point. But that doesn't lessen the importance of the article.

The main takeaway for me is that whenever I see someone outside the scientific community start using scientific theories to bolster their beliefs I should wary. If you want to understand if a theory is being misapplied the people to go to are the people who understand the theory. Let them tell you if the application of the ideas is worthwhile or bunk.

More often then not when scientific theories are used in other disciplines or by those without scientific training and understanding the results are bunk.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Food: In Soviet Russia Tea Leaves Brew You...

Tea is the most popular beverage in the world after plain water. Not bad for a drink that Douglas Adams referred to as "dried leaves boiled in water" in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

When I think of tea my mind drifts to two completely different tea cultures. The English and the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Two very different ways of enjoying those dried leaves boiled in water. Considering how popular tea is it isn't surprising that there are many different tea cultures around the world.  Anywhere people live there seems to be a particular way of preparing and drinking tea.

One way I didn't know about is the Russian way of preparing and drinking tea. In case you think that the Russians just take their dried leaves and boil them in water you're in for a shock. According to the Russian Tea HOWTO version 2 by Daniel Nagy the tea should never be boiled:
Third rule: never cook the tea leaves. The first contact of the tea leaves with water should happen right after the boiling of the latter. Neither before, nor long after. If you cook the tea leaves, you will obtain a liquid almost, but not entirely, unlike tea, fit for leather tanning, rather than drinking.
Yes... not boiling tea is rule number three. The HOWTO goes on to explain the primary difference between Russian tea and other tea - zavarka or tea concentrate. One of the secrets to Russian tea is to prepare a concentrate and then dilute it with hot water. Daniel goes on to detail the steps of making the rather dangerous zavarka. Dangerous? I'll let him explain:
Never drink the zavarka undiluted. It has a strong narcotic effect, causing intense heartbeat, hallucinations and restlessness.
As you learn the steps to recreate Russian tea you will learn a bit of Russian, the difference between boiled and raw water, some history, and much about the drink that helps keep Russian hackers awake at their keyboards. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Games: From the Gridiron to a Video Game

I remember when I first saw John Madden's face on a video game. Though I didn't own a John Madden football game until the sequel. Now it's hard to remember a time when his face and name hasn't graced the cover of a video game.

How he managed to become the face of football for millions of gamers and how the games themselves turned into a franchise is quite the story. A story told by ESPN in The Franchise. Don't think you won't learn anything along the way. There are some secrets about the early days of video game consoles that I didn't know and the truth about Joe Montana Football was a revelation to me.

Who knows who will be the next unlikely person to become the face of a video game franchise. After all if it can happen to John Madden it could happen to anyone.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Language: Correcting English

I've grown used to it online. I'm sure I've even contributed to it online. We put up with much more than we used to. The internet has lowered our threshold for correct English.

I do my best to be grammatically correct. I try to go beyond simple spellchecking. I try to give some polish to my posts. However I realize that I'm not a great self-editor. I glance over my words and tend to miss obvious errors because I know what's supposed to be there.

I've never had my writing picked apart and corrected by a talented copy editor. I'm not sure I want to go through the experience as it would most likely convince me I don't know how to use English at all.

Copy editing is a particular skill. One I haven't mastered and one I don't think I have the knack for. It must take a certain mindset and a certain set of skills that I don't have. So reading about Copy Editing at The New Yorker with Mary Norris gave me new insight into how much writing can be improved by a good editor. I have to stick with self-editing for now but I'll try to do a better job of it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Math: Standup Numerology?

What do you get when you take an inventive offbeat mind and let it loose on numbers? What happens if that minds is inside a standup comedian? You get Charles Fleischer's theory of Moleeds.

Recently people were recently made aware of Moleeds thanks to one of the most offbeat Ted talks ever.

Some of us have encountered Moleeds before. After all Charles Fleischer has been going on about his theory for a long time. Here he is in 1990 explaining Moleeds in more detail. In case you want to follow along or study his ideas there is an online transcript of his older routine.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Another Perspective on a Sunday Tradition

There are many weekly traditions all over the world. Sunday has always been associated with religion. Whether mass or prayer or a gathering. The digital world has very few recurring traditions. On Sunday one of the more popular ones is

PostSecret is best described by its own summary:
PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.
That's it. Every week Frank Warren continues his tradition of putting online a collection of the best secrets he's collected. I have no idea how many he has to sift through to find the handful that grace the web every Sunday morning. It must be a daunting task.

It must also be daunting to be the mail carrier for Frank's address. A quite out of the way postal route slowly turned into an ongoing tsunami of postcards. What must it have been like when a few postcards turned into a phenomenon? Well wonder no more. The original PostSecret mail carrier retired and moved to the UK with her husband. She also started a blog and then got around to posting her side of the PostSecret story.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Auto Tune - The Meme

I've written about Auto Tune once or twice before. But it's spread beyond music. The technology apparently won't be stopped.

First there was Auto Tune the News. The group behind that project saw a news story featuring Antoine Dodson and created Hide Your Family. Obviously Auto Tune is with us to stay. But where in the lifecycle of a typical meme is it?

To find out we need to consult the experts from Know Your Meme who, along with Weird Al, can help us understand the Auto Tune meme (video).

Friday, October 8, 2010

Science: Helping People Across the Divide

Science is a powerful way of understanding the world. Science isn't the only way to understand the world though. You can look at the world as a mysterious place full of forces and energies that aren't yet understood. You can understand the world as a mystical place or a place full of unproven wonders.

When these other views of the world co-opt scientific terminology and try to sound scientific they often miss the mark. These completely unscientific and unproven ways of looking at the world that try to sound scientific are called pseudoscience. It may sound like science but it isn't science.

The various pseudoscientific disciplines that make up much of the New Age movement have been criticized by scientists and skeptics. After all these beliefs and disciplines are trying to wear the respectability and importance of science. Skeptics debunk these claims and do their best to deny these groups this respect. If you aren't playing science by the rules of science you have no claim to call yourself scientific.

There is a problem though. Criticizing, challenging, and dismissing these disciplines isn't very constructive in bringing the believers into the realm of true science, reason, and critical thinking. In fact it seems that adherents of these New Age beliefs tend to switch beliefs quite readily. If one isn't working or has been 'obviously' proven wrong they're more likely to move on to something else just as unscientific.

Karla McLaren was a devoted believer in New Age mysticism. She is a published author on the subject. Over a long period she changed her mind on her beliefs in these areas. She's slowly turned into one of the skeptics. But being a person who has some insight into the mindset of New Agers she's written an piece for CSICOP called Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures.

Karla doesn't have a solution to the problem of bridging the gap yet. She's looking hard for one though. What she does have is a powerful insight into the mindset of this group of people. They want answers. They want insight and information and yet are able to easily hold conflicting and contradictory ideas in their minds without issue. Her own journey and the journey she's witnessed in others is revealing to people like myself who wonder exactly what people find in New Age beliefs. She also has insight into the skeptics. Insight into their integrity and their concern about people who hold completely misguided ideas and beliefs.

People like Karla who have been able to see both sides of the chasm may be the people to help bridge it. Here's hoping she finds a way to introduce more New Agers into the wonders and mysteries of the universe as it is and not just as people want it to be.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Food: The Language of Food

Occasionally I come across orphan web sites that I hope never fade away. The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a blog that contains just four posts. Four long extraordinary posts on the history of food written over four months in 2009.

Illustrated, well researched, and completely fascinating glimpses into the history and language of food. Dig in and enjoy.

Leaving Gender for Something Even More Basic

Yes it's time to change topics. Thursdays are no longer about gender. Sex is no longer the issue. Instead I'm switching to something even more basic and essential. What's more essential than sex?


Anything and everything relating to food is the new topic. Some people obsess over food. Others don't give it much thought. There are gourmets and gourmands. Those that eat to live and those that live to eat. No matter where you fit in hopefully I can show you part of the Longer Web that will whet your appetite.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Games: Solving The Petals Around The Rose

I'm going to invite you in to a secret club. It isn't like fight club. You can talk about the club. What you can't do is explain the club's secret outright. Instead you have to let people figure out the secret themselves.

To join the club you need to figure out the secret of the game called Petals Around the Rose. Then you have to prove you know the answer without explaining your answer. After all the answer is a secret.

A person who knows the answer takes 5 regular dice. They tell you that every time you roll the 5 dice there is an answer. All they will tell you is the name of the game - Petals Around the Rose, that the answer is zero or an even number, and that they will tell you the answer for any roll of the dice. You have to figure out what the secret is.

You can't say the secret out loud. That's part of being in the club. So to prove you know the secret you have to give the correct answer to six rolls of the dice. If you can do it six times in a row then you've figured it out.

Want to become a member of the club? Then read Bill Gates and Petals Around the Rose. There's more then enough examples in the article to allow you to figure out the secret that you will then never mention to anyone directly.

Let me know if you become a member of the club. Without telling me the secret of course.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Language: Correct English?

English, like all languages, is slowly changing over time. Since English is widespread and absorbs other influences with a vengeance it's probably more likely to change. Some words and phrases change their meanings. Others words and phrases get changed because people aren't familiar with the words.

I came across a perfect example during a conference call recently. The call was between four groups of people spread out across half of Canada. Since this was the first meeting each group gave a quick background and rundown of their situation. The first person to speak up started by saying that she'd moved to Canada six years ago and that she was from the United States. She'd moved to the province her husband was born and raised in. Nice to see that people migrate across the border in both directions.

At one point during the call she mentioned one problem that her group was having that "wrecked havoc". In the conference room we were on mute and someone else in the room said that "wrecked havoc" was a particularly American version of "wreaked havoc".

I dug around a little. As far as I can tell the original is wreaked havoc. Wrecked is an incorrect substitution. My own guess is that wrecked is a much more popular and much more used word than wreaked so over time there's been a switch. In the long wrong "wrecked havoc" may well turn out to become correct usage. At the moment it's considered incorrect.

Which leads me to the interesting question of which errors are real and which errors are English in flux? Do we just accept errors or do we hold on to much of what makes English interesting and powerful by sticking to correct usage and correct meanings?

I don't know the answer. English will certainly change and evolve but hopefully much of its strength and power in having so many specific terms and turns of phrase will remain. I'm not a fan of simplified English.

If you want to see a large list of English errors the place to go is Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage pages. Not only is there a large list of words that are incorrectly used and a list of the commonly misspelled words but he has a list of non-errors as well. His entry on how "wreaking havoc" is incorrectly used uses "wrecking havoc" as the minor error. The glaring error is "reeking havoc".

He also has a good set of links to other resources. If you want to range far and wide wrecking/reeking and/or wrecking havoc with the English language he will give you plenty of places to start.

References like Paul Brians' may not correct English usage. They may not stop English from changing in ways many of us feel is incorrect or wrong. They will help document how the language is being misused and misunderstood now. Which may help others in the future when they try and understand what we are saying and writing now.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Math: The Most Important Video You'll Ever See?

The catchy title on YouTube is The Most IMPORTANT Video You'll Ever See. The title in the video itself is Arithmetic, Population, and Energy. Regardless of what you think of the catchy title the video makes a powerful point.

Dr. Albert Bartlett from the University of Colorado at Boulder sits behind a desk, shows some slides and charts, and will probably scare the heck out of you. If you don't have a handle on the idea of exponential growth or compound interest this will be an eye opener.

The video is in 8 parts. Here are the links - part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.

I'm not sure it's the most IMPORTANT video but I'd recommend it even if you aren't fluent in math. It will make you think a bit about our future.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Magnificent Obsessions: Building a Game Console

If I said someone was working on building their own computer gaming console that would plug into a TV you'd probably say something like "I can believe it".

If I said the person wasn't working on a 63 or 32 bit modern system but was going to build their own 8 bit computer system along the lines of the Nintendo Entertainment System you'd probably say "I can't imagine why anyone would do it but I can still believe it".

If I said that the person in question isn't going to use any modern components except for an inexpensive modern microcontroller. All the support chips, memory, video timings, and the like will be handled with components that were available back in the 8 bit era. At this point you'd probably agree with me that this qualifies as a magnificent obsession.

Brad Graham from Lucid Science is attempting just such a feat. He's building the Lazarus-64 which he started thinking about while on vacation and named because:
The name "Lazarus-64" was penciled on the top of the notebook, and it seemed fitting considering the mythical character that rose from the dead.
The project is very much a work in progress but there has been a lot of progress. Going through the work Brad's done so far will remind us old fogeys just how complicated early systems were. No simple systems-on-a-chip back then. I'm looking forward to seeing how far the Lazarus-64 will progress. It reminds me of how much programmers and designers could get out of systems that seem incredibly limited by modern standards.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Cost of Healthcare in the United States

It's too early to see what will happen with healthcare reform in the United States. Will more Americans have access to healthcare? Will more people buy insurance and be covered? Will costs and spending go up or down? All these are questions that will take time to answer.

One thing is for sure. The United States spends per capita more on healthcare than any other country. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. You'd expect the richest nation to spend more dollars. After all everything costs more in the richest country in the world. But Americans are spending much more on healthcare when you compare against GDP. What's going on?

When I hear that not everyone is covered and insurance is not universal and companies aren't subsidizing insurance and coverage like they used to I have to stop and wonder. Why is it so expensive?

Aaron Carroll at The Incidental Economist just finished a multipart expose called What makes the US health care system so expensive. He points out that this particular analysis isn't about outcomes. It's not about whether Americans are getting better healthcare for the money. It's simply about where the money is going. Even if you're not going to dig into all the messy details the post on Red Herrings is interesting reading. At least you'll know whenever someone mentions one of them that they don't actually know the numbers behind their arguments.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Science: Understanding Electricity

Electricity is simple to understand right? You just read a grade school or high school textbook and you'll have a good basic understanding of what electricity is right?

Probably not.
Not according to William J. Beatty. He's the gentleman who showed how a single driver can help clear traffic jams.

His site has a whole section dedicated to misconceptions about electricity. Reading your way through the misconceptions will clear up a great deal. What most of us think about electricity is wrong. The truth isn't hard to grasp or understand. It's just not usually presented well.

It's not hard to read through the collected electrical misconceptions. At which point you can move on to the best explanation I've ever read on how transistors really work. It just builds on what you've worked through so far. If you've ever wondered how those miracles of the twentieth century work then this will help.

After you spend some time correcting yourself on all things electrical why not take a gander at his entire list of misconceptions and science myths in popular culture. If this is how bad most textbooks are then we're not being well served at all. Give William's site a read. You'd be amazed how much you can relearn.