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 techwriter.dk 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.