Sunday, October 31, 2010

Swimming Towards the Surface

As some of you few may know, I had back surgery a little over a week ago, and that's why there've been no posts for awhile.  The recovery is going well, and I"m not as spaced out by the pain relief drugs as I was at first, so I'll be easing my way back into a life on the Web as well as in the Real World starting about now.

I'd like to thank Eva for taking care of me (and the dogs) so well and so carefully; I quite literally could not have done it without her.

Friday, September 10, 2010

More Poetry in Stock Than Ever Before!

I have finally gathered all my poems from the archives of Making Light and put them onto my own web site, The Den of SpeakerToManagers, on the Miscellaneous Sonnets and Other Poems page.  As the title implies, they're mostly sonnets, with a couple of villanelles thrown in for good measure.  The poems are in chronological order of writing, the oldest at the top of the page.  I hope you enjoy reading them.

ETA: I'll be fixing up the typography and the layout of the poems in the near future, but the content will remain the same.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Arise Ye Prisoners of Starvation

The other day I watched "Capitalism: A Love Story" for the first time (we don't go to the movie theater but once or twice a year, so we have to wait for things to be put on cable), and was blown away by the trailing title song: a jazz version of The Internationale (in English). Listen for yourself:

Back for a Bit

This blog has been very quiet the last few weeks.  One of the reasons is that Eva has been going through a course of radiation therapy for the last 6 or 7 weeks; that's kept me busy driving her to the hospital every day, plus doing the chores that she hasn't been able to do because of the fatigue the therapy causes.  In addition, I've had some medical appointments of my own, as I try to figure out what to do about my back.  But now Eva's therapy is done, and I've come close to having some resolution on my own case, so I expect to be writing more, at least for the next few weeks.

More details on both Eva's and my medical adventures below the fold.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The End of the World Cup Game

Really, you had to be there.

Whose Case Is It Anyway?

Well, now I know why the doctors I've been seeing about my spine haven't been giving me advice on how to manage my problems.  Seems that the neurologist now considers herself to be operating solely in an advisory capacity to the neurosurgeon, but she didn't mention that to me.  Also the surgeon moved his practice from Providence St. Vincent Hospital to Legacy Meridian Hospital (different health systems and provider networks, of course), and that's the first I've heard of that, also.  So it looks like I've fallen through the cracks.  Time will tell, we've got messages in to the surgeon's new office asking what my status really is.

Oh, and quite by accident, this won't affect my health insurance situation.  If I were staying on COBRA it would, since that coverage makes Providence a preferred provider network; anything done at Legacy costs me an extra 20% of the invoiced amount (which has been a problem because the neurologist is at Legacy Meridian).  But as of the beginning of this month my COBRA coverage has expired (thanks, Congress), and I'm going on the Oregon Medical Insurance Pool.  Coverage won't lapse, but I have to wait for the paperwork to be done and my coverage info sent to me before I can get it to the providers.  I believe the OMIP coverage will be the same for both providers (at least I hope it will; Providence is more convenient for a lot of things, and I like the hospital itself better).

It's interesting to compare this situation with the therapy Eva is getting for breast cancer prophylaxis.  There is a single person who is her case worker whose job it is to coordinate therapies and doctors, and to make sure that she knows what's going on, and that everyone is singing from the same page of the score.  And all the health professionals go to great lengths to keep it that way.  I think everybody should have a case worker, for all health concerns.  I did a rough back of the envelope calculation: Eva's caseworker says she's carrying 300 active cases; for everybody to get one (and assuming an entire family gets the same caseworker, which makes sense to me) means we'd need considerably fewer than a million caseworkers nationwide.  I bet we could train that many of the currently-unemployed to do the job in less than a year.

Undead on the Scene

You really have to love Portland.  It's not just that this is where silly things like the following happen, it's also where the police are cool with it.

After the jump: "Zombies" crash on I-84 near Lloyd exit

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Hot Today

It's hot today (94 ℉ at 5PM) and the upstairs floor of our house, not being air-conditioned, is uninhabitable.  The downstairs floor is set into a hillside, so conduction into the dirt and rock keeps us reasonably cool unless we have a heat wave where it never gets cold enough at night for the air to cool down again.  So right now my office, which is downstairs, is in the mid-70s.  There's a portable airconditioner in the TV room, where we eat dinner most nights, that's holding that room at about 72 ℉.  So the only uncomfortable part of the day (aside from having to go out, of course), is making dinner.  I tend to keep that simple and fast.

The one thing I can't figure out is why the dogs like to lie around in the heat upstairs so much.

A Bit of FanFic

Last month John Scalzi and Wil Wheaten started a contest for the readers of their blogs write a piece of fan fiction no longer than 2,000 words based on an illustration of a fantasy battle between the two of them. I entered a piece, and it was a lot of fun to write, so I thought I'd put it up here for you to enjoy. Like most fanfic there are a lot of in-jokes, but if you're not up on them, don't despair; the big one at the end comes from Scalzi's famed bacon-cat photo. My piece is at the Read More link below, but you should definitely look at the illustration first.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Exciting animal story for today

(at least the animal found it exciting)

I was sitting here at the computer when Eva yelled down the stairs from the living room, "There's a bird trapped in here." Eva ran down as I ran up, because as a little girl she once got a bat trapped in her hair for a minute or two, and is very averse to that ever happening again.

The bird had come in the sliding door from the deck, which is at the end of the north wall of the living room. The rest of that wall is picture windows (this is an Atomic Age split-level ranch, and the amount of light coming into the living room was one of the reasons we bought the house), and the bird tried to get out again through a window. It was trapped in the window by Spencer, our rat terrier, who wanted to either play with the bird or eat it, either of which would have been seriously bad for the bird. Either way, Spencer was trying hard to get to the bird, and the bird was frantically flying around in the window, but afraid to move away from it, so it was trapped in the casement. The bird was further confused by the fact that another bird (perhaps its mate) was flying around just outside the same window, and the trapped bird clearly wanted to join it.

There's a baker's rack with plants and some display vases next to that window, and now there was also an excited terrier trying to get to the window, so I had to spend several minutes moving things out of the way while holding the dog off. Luckily, Jemma, the Lhasa Apso wasn't quite so excited about the bird, though she did circle around that part of the room, a few feet back from the window. Eventually the combination of my persuasion and Eva's calling the dogs from downstairs got them both to leave the living room. The bird by this point was too scared even to be fluttering around in the window; it had landed in the corner of the window and stayed there.

The bird didn't seem to be going anywhere, so I looked around the room for something to catch the bird in that wouldn't hurt it or let it hurt me. I grabbed a blue felt blanket off the couch, the security blanket that we put on Spencer at night (he likes to sleep curled up in the fetal position on the couch completely covered by the blanket). I carefully surrounded the bird with the blanket and very softly closed it up so that I had my hands around the bird's body and wings. The bird didn't move; I guess it was still pretty scared. Then I carried the blanket out on the deck, held it over the railing above the back yard, and shook the blanket gently so the bird could get out. It flew straight away from me as fast as it could, apparently undamaged.

Spencer doesn't seem to have noticed any new smells on his blanket, which I'm happy about. He can wind himself up quite enough even without the smell of prey to excite him.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hurry Up and Wait

A couple of weeks of medical drama for Eva, then a week or so of medical drama for me, neatly wrapped up with a minor medical procedure (installation of some electrodes under my skin for pain relief similar to the TENS unit I'm currently using) that was supposed to happen yesterday (Friday), but didn't because the doctor's office forgot to let me know I needed to get a blood test and an EKG beforehand. I'll blog about all this in a little more detail later on, but it explains why I haven't had time to post anything here in a couple of weeks.

Also, it's been a bad week for the good guys. Requiescat in Pace:

Mez (Merril Pye) died Jan. 1, 2010 after fighting cancer for several years, but I (and the rest of the Making Light community where she posted for the last few years) only just found out today.

Jeanne Robinson, wife of Spider, died last week of cancer, surrounded by her family and friends.
George Scithers' ashes were interred at Arlington Cemetery last week. George was for decades a giant in science fiction fandom and in publishing. He was a major force in creating and maintaining the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Atlantis Goes Last Time A'Roving

The launch of Space Shuttle mission STS-132, Atlantis' last flight, was observed by a group of science-fiction writers, editors, and other members of the Science Fiction Writers' Association taking time out from the Nebula Awards convention. At the link above, Patrick Nielson Hayden posted a photo of the launch, and several commenters on his blog posted poetry inspired by the launch (the sonnets by Fragano Ledgister and Lori Coulson are especially good, but I recommend you read the entire comment thread). Here's a sonnet that I wrote for the occasion:

They mount a thread of smoke to reach the sky;
we hold our breath below. Recall of sight
of those before who lost their lives gives fright
until calm voice reports all safe; we sigh.
And so again we've sent them to the black,
explorers yes, but artisans as well;
carrying breath for later ones to dwell
there and move outward on their track.
Rejoicing's tinged a melancholy hue:
Atlantis will not ride again the fire;
her sisters are all soon to follow suit.
Though plan's not made, I hope some day a crew
will board a future craft to journey higher,
while giving these adventurers salute.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Medical Status

The kids have gone home, the dogs have settled down, and I've gotten a few of the medical tests and consultations out of the way, so things have slowed down a bit. The consensus of my doctors at this point is that surgery is probably not indicated now; instead we're going to investigate having a neural stimulator implanted in my spine. This works very much like the TENS unit I'm currently using, except that instead of electrodes pasted to the skin, it uses wires and a small control unit implanted next to the spine. The first step is a temporary implant, to test whether the stimulation will actually help; before committing to that I have to get a psychological exam to make sure I'm not a fruitcake who won't react properly to the current. That's scheduled for 2 weeks from now.

Now if Congress would just get off its collective thumb and pass the COBRA subsidy extension, I may get back $5 or $6000 that I've already overpaid for health insurance before I have to change my coverage from COBRA to the Oregon Health Plan, and then to whatever they're going to call the Health Reform Act post-COBRA coverage (can't tell the insurers without a score card). Then we can figure out who's going to cover the implant procedure.

The ACTA Alert Box

The alert box you now see at the top of this blog is intended to warn readers about the dangers of the secret negotiations going on now to create an international treaty on protection of intellectual property. Completely in disregard to the statements that President Obama has made promising transparency in the processes of his administration, the United States is doing everything it can to keep these negotiations secret from the public, presumably because they are in fact seriously tilted towards the owners of that property, to the detriment of public and social requirements for open access to ideas and designs that are in fact the property of society in general, or should be. Please follow the link in the alert, learn about the issues, and, if you agree, sign the Wellington Declaration.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More Sporadicness in the Near Future

I went in for a cortisone shot in my spine yesterday and got some bad news: more problems with disks up the stack from the last problems. Recovery from the shot blew yesterday, and there'll be more medical appointments in the next couple of weeks. On top of that, my older son has finalized the dates for his visit back to Oregon, and it's the week starting this Friday. We'll be putting him and his wife up in the spare bedroom, and acting as reunion central for the rest of the local family and friends, so I don't expect to have much time for the internet. I'll sneak in posts as I can.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Very Sad Story

I've debated for the last week whether to post this story because I honestly don't know how to take it. It's a damn shame that it happened, but there's nothing that you or I can do about it. It's a personal tragedy, and I'm damned if I can articulate any greater lesson or caution to be learned from it, other than, "Yes, it can happen to anyone." But I want to talk about it, because it bugs me, so here goes.

When I went into the surgeon's office for a followup exam after my back surgery last year I was told that I would have to see the surgeon's assistant because the surgeon was on extended leave for personal reasons. That wasn't a big problem for me because the assistant had taken part in my surgery and was familiar with my case. Then three months after my surgery, when I had another followup appointment, I was told that the senior surgeon was still unavailable, as a result of medical problems. I talked to people in his office and in the rehab group I went to; no one seemed to know what had happened to my surgeon, though there were rumors of chronic neurological problems that would prevent him from performing surgery.

A couple of weeks ago the doctor who's overseeing my recovery1 suggested that I talk to a surgeon again about procedures that might improve some of the problems that the previous surgery hasn't been very effective against. He suggested I see my original surgeon's partner, so I called up, and was told that my surgeon had returned and was seeing patients once a week, and that he would like to see me. So I made an appointment for last Tuesday.

It was immediately obvious what had happened to him when he walked into the consultation room, and he confirmed it: he'd had a severe stroke that partially paralyzed his left side. There was no effect on his cognitive abilities, language processing, or memory, but almost 9 months later he's still got a brace on his left foot to prevent foot drop2 and his left arm is extremely weak. He's not an old man by any means, I think he's in his late 30s, but he looks like 10 miles of bad road: his hairline has receded, he's lost considerable weight3 and his movements are not those of a active and confident man, instead they're hesitant and conservative, as if he's no longer sure what his body can do4.

Of course the irony of this happening to him at a high point in a career that's based in part on his ability to do exacting and precise physical work for long periods of time5 is not lost on him. It's especially keen as he was a surgeon in large part because he was very good at it, and he loved doing it. It' s extremely likely he will never be able to perform surgery again. But my hat's off to him; he could certainly decide not to have anything to do with medicine anymore, if he can't do surgery, but he's come back and is seeing patients and helping to plan treatments which his partner and assistant will actually perform. I surely hope that the satisfaction he gets outweighs the disappointment, if for no other reasons than that he is an excellent doctor and a really nice guy.

So there it is: I feel very bad for the doctor; having a stroke isn't worse for him than it would be for anyone else, though the resultant damage to the life he had is especially poignant in his case. I like him and am grateful to him for his work on me, so I identify more strongly with him than might with someone I don't know. But he's doing his best to come back from the physical damage, and is determined to rebuild his professional life as best he can, all of which is good. So why do I feel such a need to talk about his case? Is it just that I've found a good piece of gossip? I hope not, that wouldn't make me feel very good about myself. But what about this story should be told for what salutary effect on my readers?

1. He's a specialist in neurological and back/spine rehabilitation whose job is to make sure that the various other specialists, surgeons, therapists, and whatnot are talking to each other, and that there is someone who's watching out for the outcome of my treatment, not just the procedures being administered. I am really grateful I found him; he's the one who tells me when we need to re-evaluate how well my progress is following the expected outcome.
2. And I can sympathize with that: I've got braces on both feet for the same purpose.
3. He was in quite good physical condition before the stroke; not bulked up, but he looked like he played a lot of tennis or raquetball.
4. And I know that one too; that's what happens to anyone whose body suddenly won't do or does only with difficulty what used to be effortless.
5. My surgery lasted 6 1/2 hours; a year or so ago they'd done an 18 to 20 hour procedure that completely restructured the spine of a teenage girl with spinabifuda from C5 to S3. Shortly before my surgery, she was able to dance at her prom.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Eva and I went to see Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" in 3D yesterday. We both wanted to see the movie, she'd never seen a 3D film, and I wanted to see how the technology had changed in the 20 years or so since I'd last seen one. Conclusions: a very good movie if you ignore the 3D aspect completely. The 3D effect was technically well-handled but perhaps a bit overdone for artistic purposes (I got a mild migraine from eyestrain because of titles and foreground objects placed about at the bridge of my nose).

There are three works of Lewis Carroll's that I think are among the jewels of English literature¹: "Alice in Wonderland", "Through the Looking-Glass", and "The Hunting of the Snark".² So I tend to get somewhat critical of adaptations of Alice, to film especially. I've resigned myself to the inability of most screen writers to distinguish between "Wonderland" and "Looking-Glass"³, but I really do insist that the adapters have some clue about what Carroll was doing with his original versions. Hence my distaste for the recent abomination on SyFy.

Burton, as you might expect, has respect for both Carroll's stories and the original Tenniel illustrations. The intersection of those two is Johnny Depp's portrayal of the Mad Hatter, which I enjoyed immensely, both to look at and to hear. But the Jabberwock ("The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!") should also be admired; it is the very finest homage to Tenniel. And Burton has the sense not to try to retell the same stories as Carroll as many have tried before and failed at. Instead he gives us an older Alice, returning to Wonderland with imperfect memories of what she experienced there in her childhood.

Between Burton, Depp, the voice of the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman!), and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry!!) the level of insanity is quite as high as necessary, and definitely as dark and edgy as it needs to be (this is where Disney blew it big time in 1951, of course). Special insane honors should be given to Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Queen of Hearts with a strident psychopathy that really endeared her to me (in a dark and edgy, I'd-never-want-to-meet-her-in-a-dark-alley sort of way).

I can't really say enough good things about the visual design. The playing cards were done in a rusty-red armor that clearly did not contain human beings and managed to be both menacing and somewhat clumsy-looking at the same time, though their movements were swift and deadly; the chess pieces in the White Queen's army were from a relatively cheap, abstract-shape set (and looked as if they were made from a slightly off-white plastic). And the architecture of the castle of the Queen of Hearts was pure Eldritch Gothic.

In fact, there was only one thing I would have liked to have seen done differently. As Eva pointed out as we drove away from the theater, Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" gets its power from the fact that the actions, dialog, and motivations of the creatures of Wonderland are chaotic and often random and lacking obvious cause and effect relations. No film or TV adaptation has ever been able to unhook itself sufficiently from the orthodox notions of narrative storytelling to follow that example as far out as Carroll went. Moreover, "Through the Looking-Glass" is just the opposite, with the characters and their interactions often following spurious and nonsensical, but logical, patterns. That's why putting the two together is so problematic. In the end, Carroll had no other way to end "Wonderland" than to say that it was all a dream (or was it?); Burton felt it necessary to wrap the story in a narrative of Alice's acceptance of the adult responsibility for her own decisions. I wish he had been brave enough to stick with nonsense.

As for the 3D technology, it was reasonably good, modulo the overuse of parallax I mentioned above. I noticed a couple of odd effects, possibly artifacts of the technology: occasionally soft images such as (computer-generated, I think) lens flare or smoke effects seemed to be at the wrong depth, and some images that intended to appear very close to the viewer seemed to have inverted parallax as if they were actually behind my head. I have no idea if that's what was actually happening, but these effects were a bit disconcerting. My take on current use of 3D (not having seen "Avatar"4 which I have been told uses it very well) is that it's still somewhat of a gimmick.

I'm encouraged in my wishes for the success of this movie by the fact that three weeks after the opening it is still running in 3 theaters (2 in 2d and 1 in 3D) of the multiplex where we saw it. Please, all of you, go out and see it (again if appropriate) to make it as financially successful as it is artistically successful.

¹ And several that in a just universe would be totally forgotten: "Sylvie and Bruno" and "Sylvia and Bruno Revisited" especially.
² If you ever get a chance, listen to a audio recording of Jean Shepherd reading "The Hunting of the Snark" on his radio show (he did it once a year, with great glee and gusto).
³ I don't know if Disney was the first to do this, but I believe he influenced everyone afterwards to do it.
4For reasons of political taste, the same reasons which have so far prevented me from watching "Dances with Wolves".

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

No Post, Radio

Nothing to see here at the moment. I've got some more feedback photos to post, probably tomorrow, but the last few days have been taken up with taxes and medical appointments, so there's been time to work, but not much time to write about working. But I shall return soon.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More on Eve Arnold

Via Luminous-Lint:

My aunt Eve is going to be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards in Cannes this April.  Even neater, the award will be given on April 22, the day after her 98th birthday. Go, Eve!

ETA: see my previous posts on Eve, here and here for more information about her.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I Attempt Feedback

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm working on a visual accompaniment to a piece of music, consisting entirely of images generated by video feedback. I've done this a couple of times before, but that was in the 1970's; since then I've played with feedback occasionally but not tried to do anything serious with it. The simplest form of video feedback involves pointing a camera at a screen displaying the output of the camera. Because there is a one-frame delay from when a pixel on the screen changes until that change is sent back to the screen from the camera, a delayed feedback loop is created. Here's a still photo taken off a video of the basic setup:

Now you can move, tilt, and zoom the camera to make some more interesting patterns:

Note the camera control icons in these stills. I don't have a video camcorder, so I tried to use the video mode of a point and shoot digital camera. In fact, I tried 2 different cameras, and found that I couldn't get rid of all the icons on either of them. My current budget is constrained enough that I can't afford to go out and buy a camcorder just now, so simple video feedback is problematic for this project.

Never fear, the computer will save me. Turns out it's not at all difficult to simulate video feedback with a program. On Mac OS X, there is a program called Quartz Composer that allows you to program complicated video effects in the Core Image API. You can build components (called "patches") for these programs using standard Mac Objective-C coding, but once they're built, you can wire them together with composer in a visual editor paradigm. Since the system comes supplied with a wide-range of patches, and there are more at various developer sites on the web, you can do a lot without ever writing any code. I made some simple feedback videos using input from the iSight camera in my laptop feeding into Quartz Composer; here's one still:

Here's a screen-shot of a composer editor window:

That window shows the wiring diagram for a feedback video that looks like this:

And here's a short video of another simulated feedback program:

I'm now working on the problem of getting the clips of simulated feedback into my movie editing software so I can cut them to the music. For some reason one of them worked, but the second one I tried can't be imported correctly. Oh, the joys of software! I'll post more on this subject as I make progress.

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 bookdepository.com.

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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Friday, January 29, 2010

Pictures taken by an amazing lady

My aunt, Eve Arnold, will be 98 years old in April.  For more than 50 years she was a photojournalist and professional portrait photographer, the first woman to become a partner in Magnum, the photographers' cooperative, and a life-long friend of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom I hold to be one of the three or four best photographers of the 20th Century.  I mention all this because there are several retrospective shows of Eve's work at the moment, and some of her books are being reprinted; I'd like more people to see how good a photographer she was, and how amazing a person.  The title link of this post will take you to gallery of her photos at Magnum.  This link will take you to a portrait of her taken by Cartier-Bresson a little over 10 years ago.  Eve has a Wikipedia page, if you're interested in more about her life and works.

Eve was  hired in the 1950's to take publicity photos of Marilyn Monroe and they became friends.  Eve published a book of photographs of Monroe, and became Monroe's preferred photographer as well.  She's published a number of other books of her photographs; I highly recommend in particular "The Unretouched Woman" (unfortunately out of print, but the paperback can be found in used bookstores), whose photographs illustrate the lives and surroundings of women all over the world, and which has an introduction in which Eve talks about how she became a photographer and what her work means to her.

I haven't seen Eve in many years (she moved to England in the 1960's and has resided there since), but she has been a role model of mine since I was a teenager, not least because she encouraged me to try photography, which has remained a source of joy to me to this day.  I have been very lucky in knowing many women, some of them my relatives, who have chosen their paths to suit their own abilities and desires.  Eve is high on that list.

Now Listening to ...

I have 3 Joan Osborne albums on my iPhone; the other day I realized that I hadn't listened to most of the songs on them recently (All Songs Shuffle does seem to get stuck in a rut).  So I set the 'Phone to shuffle all of Osborne's songs, and have been listening to them while driving.  Some of those performances are like a body blow: they get to your gut and make you take notice.  If you don't know her, or only know her for "One of Us", the theme song for the "Joan of Arcadia" TV show, then I recommend you check her out.  If you can listen to "Heart of Stone",  "Running Out of Time", or "Safety in Numbers" without being moved, check your pulse because you just might be dead.