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Friday, February 26, 2010

Ping! I'm still here

The silence on this blog in the last few days is not an ominous indication of any bad things happening.  I've just been swamped with a lot of unexpected chores, my car was in the shop for several days, and I've been relearning the techniques of video feedback in preparation for making a video track for a piece of music that Tim Walters composed using audio feedback.  I'll post about the video feedback sometime next week when I've tried out some more ideas.

Posting is going to be sporadic for the next week or so; to keep you off the streets and out of trouble I'm going to leave you with a puzzle Robert Anton Wilson put into his Schrödinger's Cat trilogy.

Sometime in the middle 15th Century, two monks traveling through Romania stopped in the capital of Wallachia for the night.  They were invited to stay in the castle of the Voivode Vlad III, called Dracula (son of the Dragon), and later called Vlad Ţepeş (Vlad the Impaler) for the manner in which he executed thousands of his enemies.  Vlad sat them at his table at dinner and engaged them in conversation about their travels.  Then he asked both of them what they thought of his reign in Wallachia.  The first monk, fearing that telling the truth would anger Vlad into having the monk impaled, told the Voivode that his reign was just and benevolent, and that he was respected and loved far and wide as a great ruler.  The second monk, sure that he would be impaled if he lied, spoke of the injustices and atrocities of Vlad's reign. Which one of the monks was impaled for his answer?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Yet Another 21st Century Moment

A team at NASA has made available a free app for the iPhone that shows images of the sun taken by 2 satellites in solar orbit, one ahead of the earth and one behind.  Together, their extreme UV telescopes cover almost 90% of the sun's surface, and give a very-wide baseline stereo view of the visible surface of the sun and the space around it (in fact, the satellites are called STEREO-A and STEREO-B, for "Solar-Terrestrial Relations Observatory").  The new app provides news about the available images, and additional info about each image.  Some of the images are stills, some are movies, and some are computer-enhanced images which can be oriented in 3 dimensions by gestures on the touchscreen of the iPhone. There's one recent movie that shows a comet approaching the sun; as it gets closer the comet's tail oscillates back and forth, pushed by the solar wind.

Ralph 124C41+ didn't have it any better!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Good News, Bad News, Again

Some people have runs of good luck, some have runs of bad luck.  I seem to have runs of good luck and bad luck interspersed.  The latest is that (good news) on the same day I was to have a phone conversation with a recruiter looking for someone to fill a job that looks tailored to me (and at a very good place to work, by the sound of it), (bad news) I ran the front of my car into a lamp post while parking.   The car was going about 3 miles an hour, so (good news) I was unhurt, as were the two dogs in the back (I keep them in travel cages in the back of the station wagon, for their safety), and the car was driveable. But (bad news), just bending the bumper, denting the body, and cracking the headlight assembly results in an estimate of almost $3500 worth of body work.

Not that I'm complaining: the good news outweighs the bad by a sumo wrestler, at least.  Just hoping to have a little unmixed good luck sometime.   On second thought, I'm fine, as long as I don't get any unmixed bad luck.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bionic Me

The other day my back doctor told me I should be using braces on my feet; the pain in my knees I was complaining about was because my gait was bad, and the knees were being stressed in ways they aren't accustomed to.  This was actually good news: I had been afraid that several decades of jogging before the nerve compression that caused the gait problem had wrecked my knees.  Needing braces isn't a new thing for me; I've got one for my right foot that I got before my back surgery last year, so I only need to get one made for my left foot.

But the doctor's prescription started me thinking about how many orthotics, prostthetics, enhancements, and replacement parts we get as we get older.  I'm in my early 60s, and I've already got plastic lenses in both eyes and powerful signal-processing hearing aids in both ears.  And most days I paste electrodes to my back and plug them into an electrical stimulator that I hang on my belt; it's called a TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Neural Stimulator) unit, and its job is to block the pain in my legs that actually comes from the nerves that were compressed.  Part of that back surgery was a spinal fusion; if I'd had that 10 years ago when the doctors first suggested it, I'd have a titanium rod in my spine, with stainless steel screws to hold it in place.  But in the 9 years I waited, the state of the art in spinal fusion advanced to using bone grafts instead of hardware; result: I can go through a metal detector without it freaking out.

I may not even be near average in the replacement sweepstakes: I know several people not much older than me who have had both knees and both hips replaced with metal parts.  And as we grow older, not only does our need for replacements grow, so does medical science's ability to provide them.  I fully expect that by the time I need to replace my hearing aids (5 to 10 years from now, I hope), implants much more advanced than the cochlear implants available today will be able to restore hearing to many people who get by with hearing aids that barely do the job.

So where does it stop?  How much can you replace before you're not a biological homo sapiens any more, but some sort of homo ex machina?  My own opinion is that there may not be any change that retains the ability to think and speak and empathize with others that can take away humanity.  It's worth thinking, though,  about the cautionary tales that have been written about the subject.  The best and most thought-provoking I can think of are the "Moderan" stories of David Bunch.  Bunch wasn't telling simple horror stories out of a Luddite abhorrence of technology.  The people he described used the techology to express some of the ideals of the period of the 1960s and '70s; ideals like conforming to the expectations of others even in private matters,  competing with everyone else for your place in society, and considering the acquisition of wealth and power the most imprtant goal in life.  Of course our modern society finds these ideals abhorrent: no one would think them appropropriate today.  Oh, wait...

Friday, February 5, 2010

To Beard or Not to Beard

Now this was unexpected.  I've had that beard for about 20 years, and I hadn't planned on taking it off.  Yesterday I started to trim it with the electric razor I've used for the last seven or eight years, and after a couple of passes on the right side I saw that something was wrong: the razor was cutting off the hairs at the skin instead of couple of centimeters above.  After a moment of mild shock I realized there was nothing for it but to go ahead with cutting the beard off completely.  When I was done I called ahead to Eva to warn her to be prepared for a change before I walked into the room she was in.  It took her a while to take in the disappearance of all that facial hair.




Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Art with Numbers

It may surprise some people that there are a lot of connections between mathematics and visual art¹, it might surprise you to know that the field of Mathematical Art has flowered in the last decade as never before.  Part of the reason for this flowering is that an earlier generation of artists such as M. C. Escher  and mathematicians like H. S. M. Coxeter and Roger Penrose created an environment in which mathematicians and artists could publicly discuss each others' work.  Part of the reason is the relentless application of Moore's Law to the tasks of computing and displaying shape, color, and texture².  And part of the reason is the application of computers and computer-controlled tools to the creation of artwork.  That last part has largely been involved with the creation of sculpture, from the 3D printing of jewelry by Bathsheba Grossman to the creation of monumental sculpture with CNC machine tools by Helaman Ferguson.

Most of the mathematical art produced in the last few years has been in the form of computer graphic images (it's become cheap and easy with available software), but other media are popular too.  I've already mentioned 3D printing and machining, and there has been a lot of work in various textile media such as quilting, chrocheting, and embroidery, and origami has been claimed as a field of mathematics.  There's been work in more evanescent forms such as soap bubbles and light shows4.

One obvious source of inspiration for artists is geometry, plane or solid, Euclidian, spherical or hyperbolic.  Escher created many beautiful examples of all of those categories.  But there are many other areas of mathematics which have a visual aspect that lends itself to implementation by the artist: topology, dynamic systems theory, packing theory, and so on³.  Recently nearly 20 years of work by a loose cooperative of mathematical artists (or is that artistic mathematicians) including the science fiction writer Rudy Rucker, ended in the discovery of a 3 dimensional analog of the Mandelbrot set and the creation of some really beautiful images.

If all this sounds interesting, you can follow the link in the title of this post to a site of links to a number of artists working with mathematical images of all sorts.  I plan to blog more on this subject, and say more about specific artists.  To get you started on some of the do-it-yourself possibilities, here's a miscellany of books and links.  Some of the books, especially the ones on theory, are rather expensive, but you can find them at many public or university libraries.  The book links are to

General books on Mathematical Art:
"Fragments of Infinity: A Kaleidoscope of Math and: A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics and Art" by Ivars Peterson

Theory or Mathematical Art:
"The Visual Mind II" by Michelle Emmer
"M. C. Escher's Legacy" by Doris Schattschneider

Textile work:
The Home of Mathematical Knitting (sarah-marie's mathematical knitting pages)

"Making Mathematics with Needlework" edited by Sarah-Marie Belcastro and Carolyn Yackel
"Curve Stitching: Art of Sewing Beautiful Mathematical Patterns" by Jon Millington

The Geometry Center Download Page

¹ It certainly won't surprise any artists who took a course in perspective drawing.
² I wonder just what percentage of the world's CPU cycles has been involved with displaying some part of the Mandelbrot set.
³ For more than a century a war has been waged within mathematics over the legitimacy and relative importance of visual intuition in mathematical research and understanding.  Coxeter fought for many years for the use of diagrams and visual insight, often against the hydra-headed Nicolas Bourbaki.  Both art and mathematics were the benefactors of that battle.
4 There is a group in Germany that projects light shows onto buildings.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

More of Eve Arnold's Photos

The Beeb put up 10 photos from Eve's recent book "Eve Arnold's People" (follow the link in the title of this post), including one of Malcolm X, one of the last photos she shot before moving to England.  Damn, she's good.

Monday, February 1, 2010

iPad, You Pad, We all Pad

The outpouring of opinions, punditry, glee, and bile since last Wednesday has been pretty predictable.  Apple fanboys have waxed ecstatic, Apple naysayers have snarked and pointed to missing features, all the usual pundits have told us why the iPad matters desperately or doesn't matter at all as the case may be.  I thought I'd wait awhile before saying anything, in the hopes that the uproar would have died down enough for a rational conversation to take place.  Or one side of one, anyway, in case my two readers are out of town.

First, did Apple get it right?  I think they did as well as they ever do in a first product introduction: they showed us a first generation product which will create a new product category, and perhaps even a whole new market.  It's not perfect, and it's not yet complete, but it's out there as a stake in the ground.  And it's credible enough that it freaked Amazon into trying to extort Macmillan into submission by delisting their books.  Macmillan was one of the publishers who's been talking to Apple about ebook business models for the iPad, and their CEO went to Amazon on Thursday to say, "We like what Apple proposes and we want you to go along."  Amazon's response was "Oh, crap, it's Stevie and the Pirates! Run out all the guns!"

Let's review Steve Jobs' strategy for introducing the first generation of game-changing products like the iPod, the iPhone, and the iMac:
  1. It has to be recognizably an Apple product, with the level of fit & finish,  industrial design, and usability that we've come to expect of an Apple product.
  2. It should open a new market niche, or one whose current occupants haven't been able to get a handle on.
  3. It doesn't need to have every feature you can imagine, but it should be immediately useful to a large market segment, with potential enhancements that will pull in still more market.
  4. The target market is never programmers, computer geeks, sysadmins, or engineers.  The emphasis is always on helping people get their tasks done, or on having fun with the product.
  5. It doesn't need to be the cheapest product out there, or the most customizable, or the fastest.  It should excel in enough areas to be the best choice overall for a large part of the market in the long term.
  6. It should allow Apple to create an ecology to go with it: iTunes for iPod as an example.
I claim that the iPad fits these goals, and that it is in position to create a whole new market segment that isn't served well by existing products.  That market is the portable media server for the individual: a system to create, store, and communicate documents, books, images, video, and music, and allow access to the web and all forms of instant and asynchronous communications.  It has a screen big enough to see photographs, videos, and high-quality book text without squinting; it has a user interface that is useful in places other than at a desk or standing motionless¹ in line at the airport; and it would appear that it has enough power to be pleasant to use for the kind of simple tasks we've seen so far.

One point that seems to have been generally overlooked is that, for the purposes of its intended market, the iPad is not a computer.  It's an application engine for a whole host of applications.  Programming it,  customizing it, or having it maintained by the user are irrelevant objectives for the market in which it will be sold.  And that market is vastly larger than all of the technical users who would want to write their own apps or install a Linux distro on it.

I'm not the only one of the opinion that the iPad makes some sense.  Charlie Stross and Stephen Fry seem to agree.  Of course, both of them are tarred by the same brush I am: they're Mac users.  Perhaps not all the time, or for all tasks, but they own and enjoy using Macs, as do I.  So our opinions are not likely to be of interest to those who either loathe Apple entirely, or are only interested in what to Apple are edge-case uses of the product.

Some of the enhancements that Apple is going to make over the next 2 or 3 iterations of the iPad product line are pretty obvious.  They'll add some apps that weren't feasible for the iPhone such as the iLife applications, giving the iPad the means for creation, manipulation, and viewing of photographs, music, and movies.  They'll add 2 cameras: one facing out for taking photographs and movies of the world, and the other facing the user to allow video chat.  But there are bound to be enhancements that won't be obvious, that even Apple might not yet forsee. That's because nobody knows yet what the full range of applications will be for this kind of product,  or what use they'll be put to for which some new software or hardware will be helpful.  This is why creating a new product category can be so profitable for a company like Apple that's willing to accept a little bit of a leap into the unknown.  I predict that the real killer apps for iPad won't be things we expect.

¹ Think about using it to create maps of an archeological dig in the field, or record airplane or bus or train maintenance results on the tarmac or the rail.  I'm thinking about plugging my digital camera into it and using it check and touch up my photos in the field.

Newsflash: Amazon Tries to Poke out Curly's Eyes, Misses

The title link points to Charlie Stross' blog post describing how Amazon has "surrendered" in their pissing match with Macmillan over who gets to dominate the electronic book market (Macmillan wasn't trying).  I won't get into the whole sordid story, because a number of bloggers have already said a great deal about it, much more knowledgeably and articulately than I could.  If you've been off-planet all weekend, or are not at all plugged into the publishing industry you can read all about it in posts on Charlie's blog, and in posts (and the comments to them) on Making Light. If you want the news with a twist of snark, try John Scalzi's Whatever; read Tobias Buckell on the economics of book publishing, and why Amazon's actions were an attack on him and other writers.

My take on the action is that Apple's proposal of an agency-based deal with Macmillan and five other publishers, followed by the iPad introduction that clearly positioned it as a Kindle-killer, scared the execs at Amazon into action to shore up their strategy of dominating the future of ebook distribution by platform lockin.  So they tried a tactic that has worked for them before: extortion.  And it failed to make Macmillan cave. Although despite their "surrender" whine which tried to paint Macmillan as monopolists for insisting on a monopoly of the books they've bought from writers, Amazon has yet to relist Macmillan's books.

For my part, I sent a nasty email to Amazon on Sunday, and got back a mealy-mouthed customer service droid response.

My mail:
I understand that your recent action in removing books published by Macmillan from online purchase was part of what Amazon management perceives as a conflict between the two corporations.  But it seems to me that you have responded to a proposal from Macmillan intended as part of negotiation with a bullying tactic that hurts not only Macmillan, but your customers as well.  And I cannot see it as other than an attempt on Amazon's part to increase it's monopoly and monopsony positions in the publication supply chain so as to control the pricing and delivery of books in general. In particular I think you are attempting to control the publication of ebooks in the long term by making the Kindle the majority platform, and then preventing publication on other platforms.

I object to all those attempts on Amazon's part to control what I can read and how I must read it.  The attempt to extort submission from Macmillan is particularly objectionable, and not unique in Amazon's history; the same tactic was used against Hachette in the UK a year or so ago.  Now I am a good customer of Amazon, a member of Amazon Prime, and I have purchased thousands of dollars of books and other items in the last few years.  If you do not rescind this removal of Macmillan books from online sale in the next few days, I will cancel my Amazon Prime membership and refuse to purchase through Amazon in the future.  I certainly hope that you realize that I'm by far not the only customer of yours who feels this way.

Bruce Cohen

Their response:

We are working with the publisher to make their titles available as soon as possible and at the lowest possible prices for our customers. We will e-mail you when these titles are available, which we hope will be soon.

Just click the link for "new and used" offers for this title.

We hope to see you again soon.

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