Wednesday, December 29, 2004

School Business

Eating pizza here at my desk; not the rule, but if I'm going to get used to living in a BizMo, well, multi-tasking is the name of the game. Checked in with Russ by cell from the hospital. He's just back from DC. He pinged me yesterday during my tech session with Wanderers in KOIN tower (what some PDX families call "the candle building"). I fired off an email to Ed, using the new gmail account. He's been in my blog of late too.

I've lost track of how the theater company is doing. The play was great in Seattle, plus a kind of reunion (GENI was there), including with Canadian talent. It felt like our powwow at Russ'n Deb's, and at Karl's that time. However I regret to this day not getting to meet with Ron, the star of the show, and not for any lack of accessibility on his part. We got too engrossed around that table -- I saw some pictures from then and I looked even fatter than usual.

When do computer geeks get the time to stay buff, I'd like to know. All the pizza isn't really the problem IMO, it's like not hiking in Utah, high on my list for its geological attractions, and for when I get my BizMo. In the meantime, maybe I should just jet about in the repainted Gulfstream. That'd mean more time at the gym -- which'd be good for me.

Consoletti must be glad to finally know his two Synergetics in the Classroom, SUNY Oswego, Summer 2004, Department of Technology CDs have arrived. I gmailed him a sample picture, of himself looking workshopish. Sunanda took off for Hawai'i some weeks ago, leaving a bicycle.

I hope BFI remembers to keep reregistering that domain name ( Kiyoshi and I snagged that for them at the start of its cyber-existence -- tough to get those 3-letter dot orgs any more guys. If found, please return.

Trevor is looking into some ideology questions for me. Some of you don't know him. He's a student of Walford's ( His dome page is still popular.

I discovered a cool new cafe in the neighborhood with no patrons, just a lonely barista. I'm heading back there for another coffee (late night planned), maybe a game of chess with myself. Of course I have my cell. Hey Koski, thanks for the Xmas card; I've got it on the fridge.


OK, so I did manage to squeeze in my short loop around the Steel, not the longer 17 miler I use when training for the STP (looking forward to doing it again). I haven't risked a Segway yet. George made it look hard (BBC). How'd Saddam do? Now it's off to return The Essence of Genius (Bucky VHS) to a bookstore in the Pearl, by way of Union Station (Fabik is heading out). I think my friend Larry should get to license on the jet.

Ended up with C-SPAN tonight (missed KOIN): caught Kofi Annan telling that Fox journalist where to get off, like duh he can manage the UN from Wyoming, doesn't need to sit behind a desk in New York -- plus unlike some politicians he's not about to further strain resources with an ill-timed photo op in the disaster zone; and I snarfed up much of Howard Hart's spirited if enigmatic performance in Virginia (a replay from Dec 3, 2004). Fixed some links for Christina.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Life Aquatic (movie review)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a surprisingly whimsical but also melancholy film, which is trademark Bill Murry, who also stars in Lost in Translation and Ground Hog Day (and many others, but those are the ones I most think of here). I fell in love with many of the characters, including Bill's. And I was reminded, by the film's tribute to Cousteau, just who the real pioneers of Reality TV really are.

The film plays with being fake, by being very deliberately fake, not just in the aquatic segments, but in the slice shot of the ship, for example, where the father and son fight over who gets the girl (worth fighting for BTW). By such devices, the storytellers invoke a frame within a frame, as was Shakespeare's wont. This device is about prompting self awareness.

This film is also prototypically geek channel, in that the quest, though driven by spirited emotion (including revenge in some degree), is rather apolitical. The dialog is blandly pointed -- you don't need to be a diplomat to sail with this crew, just honestly yourself. The challenges, beyond the soap operatic, are mainly technical. Operating a ship is hard. The helicopter crash drives that point home. Maintenance matters.

As we give increasing showtime bandwidth to the myriad BizMo crews, ER teams and so on, as they fan out around the globe, their loves and heartbreaks will be real enough, as will be their many joys. The ancient rivalries will be there. But at a level we didn't enjoy before, there'll be a sense that we're all on the same team: the human crew of Spaceship Earth, with nonhuman friends in tandem (dogs and such -- and let's not forget jaguar sharks).

Matt pointed out that was Bud Cort playing the bond company stooge (a kind of saint it turns out). That was good casting, given this guy, of Harold and Maude fame, is another master of whimsy and good fun.

More Geometry of Thinking

John Mac Cosham (aka dharmraj) is continuing in the tradition of Richard Hawkins and Russell Chu, exploring the rich set of relationships set up by the IVM (aka the isomatrix) and the quanta modules. These mods assemble various polyhedra in a variety of permutations. How many ways to fill a Coupler? If the Coupler is set at volume one, per usual, then the A and B mods have volume 1/24.

Of course all this terminology is likely completely unfamiliar to you if you grew up in the United States in the late 20th century. Your teachers likely never let you in on our fancy new geometry-based philosophy. Sure, our chief architect and philosopher, Bucky Fuller, put it on the map, in part through thousands of lecture-hours at hundreds of colleges and universities. But getting established academics to actually mouth this stuff -- well, let's just say it took us many years and lots of skill to defend our beloved Ivory Tower against the raging hoardes of Sauron.

However, we did win in the end, and prospects for Middle Earth look a lot brighter as a result.

Related blog posts:
Canadian Tech: SpringDance
Blast from the Past

Sunday, December 26, 2004


For the record, I just went around the channels twice, using my basic PDX Comcast account, and found nothing live and updating about the situation in Southeast Asia. That's the problem with our TV over here: it's a stupid tape loop.

They've got us walled in. At least we've got the Internet. And people with premium channels get a little more; but mostly more tape loops. Everything pre-programmed so you can have your TV Guide all cut and dried.

How about we have a TV studio called the Situation Room that just keeps a cool computer map updated, but then does periodic zoom-in cutaways to on location reporting? The map could be Fuller's, why not? See previous post. This'd be more geek channel fare.

One of my favorite underground hits: the music video for Electronic Behavior Control System by EBN (a music group). Part of what makes it funny is that it's just so true. There's a lot of delay in TV because slow-moving ideologues want time to preprocess and spin the news, so it's meaningful to its discerning audience and not just a raw data dump. I understand and appreciate that (I'm an ideologue too, I admit it -- like who isn't one?). As humans, we're somewhat slow. A goal is to not be too slow for our own good. Nature keeps us on our toes, always.

Questions that interest me about this earthquake and tsunami: how much advance warning did scientists feel they had? Was this completely out of the blue? How much advance notice could we have given the people in Sri Lanka and environs, given tidal waves have a finite top speed? What telecommunications setup will provide such warnings in future? Are we getting warning signs that more such disasters are immanent? What signs? What services are being provided to the victims?

I'm sure I'll find all that on the Internet, but it'd be nice to use high bandwidth television more effectively, since it's already sitting right there in most homes, just waiting to be used more intelligently.

Given the hand nature deals us, it's already a tough enough game without our making it so much worse with all the flame wars. We're trying to save lives here. All that logistics savvy and deployment capability the military has: yes, we need it. A lot of the weapons we don't have any planned need for. Is that really so bad?

Democracy Now! has some good reportage -- this crew consistently produces a quality product, thanks Amy et al.

Our Land

Fuller Projection

This map keeps not getting used because of various scary reasons. It's way accurate, so maybe the Russians will beat us at geocaching. And look, the nations are missing (scream!). Plus it looks funny. The colors shown here have to do with average temperatures, but I'm sure the data is old, plus there's a lot of other data that might be of interest. If it's on television, your viewpoint might zoom in, and dissolve to closer areal views while swooping in on some actor -- like they do in Hollywood.

BFI once sold plain white versions, really big ones, and suggested we color 'em with our own data. I did so, probably with crayons. But I think it deteriorated. Kiyoshi told me it's this map which brought him to BFI in the first place: he was an architect studying the global grid lines used to site streets and buildings in Philadelphia (a kind of Feng Shui those spacey Europeans knew about).

Critical Path
suggests doing one of these maps (or more than one) as a lit score board, but higher rez, like you've probably seen: billboards that're almost TV-like seen from a distance -- distracting to freeway drivers. Back in the early '80s, I kept pushing for one to appear on the back wall of Loew's Theater in Jersey City, right outside my front door on Magnolia Street. OK, so I was being self-serving. My neighbors might've hated it. Plus I wanted to use the close-by Stanley Theater for like IMAX movies. Jehovah's Witnesses got the building before I did though. So maybe they like the idea?

Chris Rywalt has done some nice animations, folding and unfolding the map.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas Eve

I'm having a fun and productive day (with caveats: see below). I saw Mark's post about going to work at FreeGeek this morning, and so rode down to join him on my bicycle (bitter cold, but plenty of traction). I wrote something about my AM sojourn at FreeGeek for the Collab list.

Just now, I went out for another Christmas present for Tara, but in backing into the parking spot, my attention was traffic-side, and I didn't see the stupid telephone poll. Bye bye passenger-side mirror. I called Dick Hannah about scheduling a build session (Free Geek terminology), but of course it's Xmas Eve (which I tend to pronounce "Christmas Eve" BTW, unlike that minister I saw on TV who didn't like pronouncing it "ExMas"), so the local car shops aren't picking up the phone much. I left a message with Mountain Tech as well (a great Subaru shop in Oregon City).

On NPR, I picked up some story about an Iraqi student in the USA, feeling like a stranger in a strange land. I hardly blame him. Feels that way to me too some days. Like, I was born here, in Chicago, and grew up in PDX when my dad was with the Planning Bureau here. But then it was other countries for the most part, until I went to Princeton in the 1970s (Class of 1980). Reacclimating to the USA was rather difficult. I wrote a lot of letters to high up officials in the Reagan years, trying to gauge the situation -- having books by Buckminster Fuller to give me clues (quite the syllabus, that -- but hardly mentioned or discussed at Princeton 1976-1980).

These days, I feel pretty well embedded, as a functional American. I used to pray, in Jersey City, that I'd become "a reliable chip on motherboard earth," i.e. my prayer was to have some integrity, as Fuller was pretty clear that integrity really mattered at this juncture, and I was scared enough by the reality of it all to really believe him, plus I longed for a better future for myself and my peers. It's been a pretty rough road in spots, that's for sure. Getting some time in Bhutan really helped -- an infusion of happiness and well-being, that's kept me going ever since. Dad was killed in a road accident in 2000 in South Africa. My wife got cancer, big time, in 2004 (her prognosis is good though).

Also today, I've been productive on the math-teach list, trying to spell out in greater detail how I envision a technology-savvy curriculum that really gets us up to speed. There's a bright future that's possible (I think Fuller was very right about that), but it requires us to use our highest faculties, and not to pretend to be dumber than we really are (we're plenty dumb, even at our smartest, is the humbling thing).

Anyway, Merry Xmas everyone. Some of the presents under the tree say Happy Solstice or Happy Hanukkah on them -- the idea being, why choose just one from among the religions when you could have so many? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

I'll let ya'll know when I get that silly passenger-side mirror fixed.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Cosmic Fishing

A cosmic fish
(from clipart archive)

Grain of Sand is brought to you by:
the Global Data Corporation
CEO: Kirby Urner
CFO: Dawn Wicca

Xrefs: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] ...

A View from Middle Earth

New Zealand vista by Bernie Gunn (click for larger view)

Bernie sent me this shot from the cockpit of his airplane. We've exchanged a lot of emails exploring the potential of Python for scientific data visualization, an area in which he has special expertise.

Sometimes, Bernie would send me something in Pascal (a language he knows well), and I'd rewrite it in Python, coupled with some visualization tool (maybe Tk or PIL) and send it back. That's a good process for learning a language (read translations).

Bernie documented some results of our collaboration at his web site (scroll down to the Python section -- you'll see my name), as I'm likewise now doing.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Day in PDX

So I got my daughter up early this morning, even though it's winter break, to expose her to some bona fide science talk: Todd Boswell telling us how to really inventory Cascadia watershed baby fish sanctuaries; at night, during winter, with a dry suit and flash light -- turns out old hand surfers are cut out for this work.

Todd works with Jim Buxton's and other water districts in Oregon. His counting technique was developed by some experts in Corvallis, and most Cascadia field scientists agree it provides better quality data than the more typical, lackadaisical, and superficial (but more convenient) summertime approach (BTW, happy solstice everyone!).

A funny part of the talk was when Todd described approaching private landowners out of the blue, with his on-the-face-of-it bizarre request to snorkel in their back yard forests. But Oregonians aren't stupid, for the most part, and readily accept that watershed management is the way to go. A large percentage of those wild migratory salmon caught off the coast of Alaska are actually Made in Oregon.

Afterwards, David Feinstein, one of the Wanderers, and a gifted mathematician, came by 4D Solutions to further discuss his ideas for providing science contest judges with interactive displays. He's a statistics guru. I'd been pushing my trademark POV-Ray + Python approach, but now that I understand his project a little better, I'm inclined to think maybe Flash or Shockwave is the way to go. However, he's also planning to check out PyGame (a Python wrapper for the gamers' SDL library). Unlike Flash or Shockwave, PyGame is free and open source (plus so far Shockwave doesn't run on Linux -- I signed a petition to Macromedia encouraging them to think about it). I also showed him FoxFire, which runs well on WinXP.

This afternoon, I'll be meeting with Ron Braithwaite to tie off some loose ends regarding Free Geek and Collaborative Technologies. Ron is currently thinking to emigrate to Canada, per disappointing election results and all the rest of it.

Like many liberals, Ron is dispirited by the outcome, and even more so by the black boxiness of the process. He fears the USA is sliding down a slippery slope into a post-USA era i.e. one wherein no one really defends the Constitution any more. I followed-up his letter to geeks about this, saying I didn't think the situation was quite that dire. After all, we can still play Uru when we want to.

Then, I'll have an ILP meeting with Ki Master George, stopping enroute to off-load some recycling at a Metro facility.

My daughter enjoyed the science talk, although the hour was early and her sleep last night intermittent (my wife and I were at odds over whether her even going to this talk was really well advised -- in retrospect, we seem to agree it was probably a good experience).

Tara and I left a tad early to swing by Noah's Bagels, where I read in the Jewish Review (2004.12.15) about some Bill O'Reilly guy on Fox calling someone named Foxman a nut. I explained the story to Tara, about how this country is not specifically Christian, or Jewish, or any religion (something she already knew from school), because the founders weren't dummies, and knew from like a thousand years of European history what a stupid trap it could be to get the religions at each others' throats e.g. by having the government weigh in heavily for one or another. Religious hatreds are about as nasty as they come.

In America, we know that inciting violence among the myriad religions is not a smart way to govern. People who indulge in that kind of thing have no place in government. Since O'Reilly has none -- he works for a private company, owned by some Aussie -- there's not really a big problem here. As a private concern, Fox is free to broadcast as much nutty TV as its sponsors are willing to buy (within FCC guidelines of course). I have the same freedoms (plus I'm a lot less nutty).

Followup: Ron persuaded me that my BizMo should probably be diesel, with an eye toward using biodiesel when the opportunity arises. He said the Marines already have diesel motorcycles for scouting (lucky devils). I'm not saying I wouldn't take a BizMo with a standard gas-fired engine, ala Detroit's forte, but down the road, I'm seeing diesel as a potential upgrade, perhaps even in lieu of a hybrid. Ron was a combat photographer in Vietnam BTW -- for the Air Force I think it was. He's also a Friend.

Closely related blog entry:
Nehelam Watershed

More tangential blog entry:

Interface Designs

Monday, December 20, 2004

National Intelligence Director

Regarding the NID, or whatever she's called, I'm dubious that this position will survive close scrutiny by Constitutional scholars, who will rightly point out that no such role is scripted into the federal framework, even if it's on a rung below the President's, and within the executive branch. It's just too big a job to leave unmentioned, either by ratification of a modification -- or else we might simply admit that we're not really using the Constitution any more (Senator Byrd would be upset, and I would be too).

Already, the whole shadowy network of DCI, DDCI, CIA Executive Director (e.g. Nora Slatkin), CIA Inspector General, CIA Deputy Inspector General (e.g. Ed Applewhite), and so on and so forth, sounds suspiciously anti-American and anti-democracy, until, that is, one really studies American history, and comes to realize that shadowy intelligence circuits have been with us from the very beginning. Indeed, the Revolution was steeped in espionage, with spymasters like Ben Franklin, living overseas, helping to bring it off (the Constitution included -- he was a kind of behind-the-scenes peacemaker (like, imagine trying to pass a document like that with the Congress in session today! (ol' Ben had a very tough job))).

I think the deeper question is the role of the President vis-a-vis the IC. The title "Commander in Chief" gets people spontaneously imagining the Pentagon, where Joint Chiefs head the various rank and file hierarchies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Special Ops). Less obvious, is the police side of it, a civilian setup that's far less easy to diagram, in terms of rank, awards, other insignia, which the military is used to seeing sewn directly to the uniform. What is the President's title vis-a-vis the police? This question has only gotten more complicated lately, in addition to more urgent, with the Department of Homeland Security materializing in the wake of 911.

I think most in the American public are willing to forgive the CIA and FBI for their existence. Homeland Security, on the other hand, has an eerie Orwellian ring, which is why liberals keep using the word "Stalinist" with reference to the apparent totalitarian bent of some within the Bush administration. I wouldn't bet the house on this particular department sticking around over the long haul. Like the Department of Education, it'll keep showing up on various factional hit lists, for deep budget cuts if not for outright eradication.

As for the FBI and CIA working together more closely, that's a corner people are trying to turn with this controversial new NID position. However, the public doesn't feel at all in the loop on this stuff. The older generation has words of warning for the younger: COINTELPRO, Phoenix, Operation Paperclip and the like. The whole deep shadowy history of domestic spying within the United States, with Hoover a key player, remains perturbing and opaque to most citizens.

Their eagerness for Homeland Security to converge with some potentially domineering Office of the NID, is less than lukewarm. The potential for abuse and corruption within these shadows, especially if controlled behind the scenes by those of totalitarian bent within the President's party, is simply enormous. What happened in Iraq already happens here, in our most brutal prisons. The last thing we need is the spread of that kind of "intelligence." That the Congress wants to visit this on us, and with minimal public discussion, is obviously a recipe for disaster in my book.

At least, that's the way it looks from PDX today. I'll keep reading my newspapers to see if I should think about changing my mind. But for now, I'd say we're in a holding pattern, and rightly so. Much more legwork is required, before we have a working, responsive framework in place, and I share the goal of making that happen -- we all want more security, more democracy, less terrorism.

Update 2005.2.17: the position is actually Director of National Intelligence or DNI, which makes me think of the D'ni in Uru (a classic videogame from Cyan in Spokane). Plus a chief function of the DNI would probably be to deny this, that or the other. As of today, DCers are still worried about filling a "power vacuum" thanks to this newly projected vacancy. The prez is eyeing various candidates. Update 2006.12.20: Senator Byrd is upset.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Geek Channel: Studio Views

Let's model various ideal classroom setups in studio, designing in concert with such technology firms as Hewlett-Packard. Students have cool control-panel countertops with recessable screens and keyboards. Every seat provides sockets for headphones, microphones, USB devices. ADA compliant. I imagine one of those bowl-like rooms, such as at the Woodrow Wilson School @ Princeton.

Viewers in TV land may not currently have access to anything like this studio, where the students are obviously privileged. Like, perhaps a viewer is watching from some camp site in big sky country, out under the stars. That's a privileged position as well. The studio looks like it's probably a big city thing.

Viewers wishing a spot on the cast may apply: it's a rotating line-up, like on game shows, and culturally diverse. The rate of turnover varies. The teachers keep changing as well, some returning periodically. Favorite segments keep recycling from/to the archive, per the Sesame Street model. We needn't retire segments just because the current cast consists mostly or entirely of different faces. Ditto with the puppets.

The tiered countertops in the bowl-shaped amphitheater optionally face a screen, podium, chairs set for conversation -- whatever props the guests need for that day. It's all made-for-TV and directors do the usual tricks with blue screens etc.

Following the lead of Mr. Rogers, we'll sometimes go back stage and reveal these tricks of the trade (maybe not all of them). This isn't cheating: the core product is the programming itself, not the classrooms per se, although I expect the studio mock-ups will inspire more reality-based versions in the field (we'll showcase them too). What's real is the quality of the content we teach. We use tricks of the trade to make the teaching more efficient and effective.

I'm not suggesting that this classroom setting be the main or only focus of geek channel segments, only that it's a good home base, in the way a few porch steps, walls and windows, some garbage cans, give a familiar locus and focus to our much loved Sesame Street domain.

Related reading:
some thread on math-teach
@ Math Forum

Twenty Wall Posters (digital art)

Twenty Wall Postersa digital collage (click for larger image)

I made this using Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, starting with a scan of Jack Ohman's editorial cartoon in today's Sunday Oregonian (Dec 19, 2004), and merging it with a scan of USPS Bucky stamps © 2003.

In other art news: congratulations to FireFox on the media campaign, including the full page ad in the New York Times (Dec 16, 2004). One of my Saturday Academy graduates, alias Ki Master George, has his name in that ad (twice), a cool gift from his dad.

An art and architecture lover's destination: Tacoma, these days, is very 21st century. These recent slides (family in the foreground) remind me of the USPS Bucky stamps: tension bridge, giant dome, an admixture of design and industrial sciences, both vintage and contemporary. The volcano-shaped building contains a glassworks, part of the new Museum of Glass.

Speaking of political cartoons, I have a few primitive offerings, done in the late 1990s: [1][2][3][4]

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Intourist PDX

Kind of a cryptic title: Intourist was this Soviet agency for handling tourists -- groups mainly, although occasionally a lone family would show up out of the blue, like we Urners that time, arriving in Tashkent on an Aeroflot from Kabul. PDX is the 3-letter airport code for Portland, which we're quite proud of -- you'll see signs like Welcome to PDX.

One of our star attractions is the Bagdad Theater (that's right, no h). Even some people in Washington, DC know it by now, because it's featured in What the Bleep Do We Know?, a film by some local space cases who managed to make the big time.

The Bagdad is usually for movies (Team America is playing these days), but is sometimes a venue for speakers, thanks to Powell's Books, another institution for which Portland is justly famous.

Recent speakers have included Amy Goodman, Jim Hightower, and Sean Astin who plays Sam Gangee in Lord of the Rings -- a pretty liberal line up (I'd say hobbits are pretty liberal, in the Shire at least, thanks in large part to Bilbo's influence, who got it from Gandalf). Multnomah County as a whole tends to lean liberal or even green (lots of Nader-huggers here). The rest of the state just has to grin and bear it a lot of the time.

The Bagdad was purchased and refurbished by McMenamins, a family of beer moguls who now sit astride what must be one of the most successful Portland-sourced businesses of all time. I'll spend quite a bit of time in these establishments, not just over beer with my friends, but at weddings, birthdays, company retreats, you name it. My wife and I celebrated a recent anniversary at the Grand Lodge in Forest Grove. And my mom and daughter went there for an adventuresome weekend on the Max (our local light rail) , even though neither drinks alcohol ("it's not required" as Intourist might put it).

PDX is fairly modest when it comes to tourist hype. We know we can't compete with Seattle, with its Space Needle and all. We're certainly not as big and famous as San Francisco. But I'd say we're worth a stop. Be sure to visit OMSI and our Omnimax theater.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Do Arabs Hate Dogs?

I've sort of OD'ed on these debates over treatment of women, veils and so on. How about we get some sympatico guests on Oprah or someplace to discuss our respective views on dogs (kalb -- about all I remember from my one semester of Arabic at Princeton).

We could have some video clips of the kinds of disgusting intimacy Americans find perfectly natural when consorting with these big-fanged canines (sharing a bed, face licking, belly rubbing...). Our Arab guests could then comment. Maybe the guy from Syria could already be a dog lover for balance. Any dog lovers in Syria?

In general, we don't have nearly enough "getting to know you" type talk shows, where busy home makers might tune in and get some culture. Like, what do Arabs really think about Americans, anyway (their penchant for destructive desecration aside -- we'll talk about that later); is it true that exposing the sole of your shoe could be misconstrued as an insult? What do they think of our monster trucks? Is alcohol really off limits, or is that just a fundamentalist thing?

Yes, these are touchy issues, but haven't the USA media developed ways to discuss just about any topic under the sun?

I'd not recommend doing this on Jerry Springer though. The last thing we need to see are poor Iraqis getting hammered with chairs -- standard fare in brutish corporate-sponsored TV land I realize, but probably too shocking for cultured Persians to stomach. Even the dog thing might gross 'em out. That's why we need Oprah. She's kind. Donahue was good too.

Next topic: So, what about those camels?

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Forces of Nature (movie review)

This is an extremely well done, 70mm format film, aimed at science museums with high tech theaters, such as we're blessed with here in Portland in the form of OMSI's Omnimax.

The forces are: tectonics and vulcanism, leading to eruptions and earthquakes; and hurricanes. Humans fit into this as fiercely dedicated to understanding the dynamics, which are too big to control, but are nevertheless comprehensible. And comprehension means knowing what warning signs to take seriously.

Scientists in all ages well know the danger in crying "wolf" too many times -- entire disciplines turn to quakery and fakery overnight, when the promised disaster fails to occur, at great inconvenience to the populace (kinda like all that Y2K blarney). It's all about establishing a track record for credibility and reliability, and the scientists in this film are working very hard to show us how they think about these things, what their evidence is.

They're driven in large degree by curiosity, but also very much by compassion: they want you to get off the mountain before she blows, out of town before the storm or earthquake strikes. Seriously.

And when there's nothing to worry about, they'd like you to feel secure in that knowledge, because it's backed by strong science. Like, we're not phony-baloney soothsayers telling worried children in Pompei to just go to bed and stop whining about Vesuvius.

I don't now if this film is being screened in Istanbul, or whether the idea is to let Turkish tourists in Portland (not a big number) start a whispering campaign back home. The message at the end was: we're honestly concerned about you. Please take care.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Welcome to My World

So I'm thinking of Jerry Pournelle and his long-running column Chaos Manor in BYTE magazine here. I always envied the guy, getting to play with all that hardware and software (didn't you?). But when did he ever find the time to get any real work done? Science fiction, in his case. Me too, sometimes.

So here's my "chaos manor" these days: three workstations wired to my broadband wireless router (a Linksys WRT54G), a couple satellite laptops (Compaqs, running XP and/or Linux). The router's fourth jack goes to a Siemens SpeedStream 2502 that sends ethernet through the manor's AC circuits, with a paired unit serving as a "plug me in anywhere" access point. Thanks to thick walls around our 4D Solutions office, the satellite laptops actually prefer chatting with the Siemens thingy upstairs. It's 801.11b, not g that way, but I haven't upgraded the PC Cards yet anyway.

I'm using DHCP on a 198.162.254.x subnet -- I changed the linksys default subnet settings, to not conflict with another subnet I sometimes try to access in Salem by VPN (once in a blue moon, this actually works). I've played with hosting through dyndns on port 80, but for now, all ports are sealed up tight. My websites remain up 24/7 courtesy of some competent ISPs (Qwest and Digital Space).

Speaking of PC Cards, one thing that keeps me from upgrading my Mandrake 9.2 to 10.1 on this old Compaq 700-series laptop, is I'm proud of all the customizing I did on it (with plenty of guidance from pioneers who went before me): I rebuilt the kernel to turn on power management features, and I managed to enslave an unwilling PC Card; this Siemens SS1021 uses the TI acx100 chipset, which Linux users have had to hack.

My main box (KTU2) is a Pentium-4 2.8 Ghz, 800 Mhz FSB, with a gig of DDR RAM. I assembled it from scratch from parts bought new at Fry's (I-5 Wilsonville exit), and older parts from previous systems (I'm not new at this, obviously).

Part of why I upgraded was to speed video editing, using raw input from my Sony DV cam (a TRV240 NTSC, which I love). I've enjoyed video editing, although I'm slow at it. Like I took this talk on Bucky I gave at the Wanderers, which Terry taped, and spliced in pictures of domes and stuff, plus some analog Hi-8 tape of Jay Baldwin in San Jose that time (we met for a few hours, talked about pillowdomes, and a lot about the hypercars he designs and anticipates). I remembered about this fun Wanderers video last night and tried to find it -- no dice.

Anyway, I think my firewire has gone out on this motherboard, as the camera is no longer recognized (plus it fails some other tests). And the Maxtor 5000DV I bought for storing video clips (120GB's worth): it died the other night (loud clacking whenever I plug it in -- fortunately, I didn't have much on it -- thanks to an earlier disaster).

So I was having trouble sleeping last night, and so decided to get some work done (not always the best solution): tried to partition my 2nd drive on KTU2, preformatting as ext3, using Partition Magic 8.0. The aim was to get this recently-downloaded Mandrake 10.1 dual-booting on my main machine, instead of just on TMU. Got a bad sector warning -- no dice.

As for my cell phone, we're doing this comedy routine which is somewhat annoying. I hold down the star key and it says "Please enter a voice command" and I say "name dial" and it asks for a name. I say "Jimmy" (that's Jimmy Lott, a great musician -- Moon Over Brooklyn and like that). The phone says "no match." OK, so maybe I used his wife's name to save this number (their daughter and mine are good friends). So I try again. "Kim" I say. And the phone says: "Did you say Jimmy?"

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Interface Designs

A skin for Windows Media Player from Valve
As my daughter and I were discussing recently, the windowing motif suggests rectilinear surfaces on the desk top, as the stereotypical window is rectangular. However, skinnable media players in particular have helped spread a non-rectilinear aesthetic, when it comes to interface surfaces and controls. The buttons aren't rectangular either.

Whereas The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte correctly excoriates "chart junk" -- cluttering up the read-outs with irrelevant eye candy, obscuring or even distorting its meaning -- our control surfaces impart more than data. The shaped controls serve a mnemonic purpose, helping users to visually and/or tactily distinguish functions based on form.

A design also says something about the culture behind it. Any museum of clocks (time pieces) from different ages and societies will prove informative in this regard. Some cultures were so into froo-froo (the French still take flak for that, which politicos tried to redirect at John Kerry -- there's a great take in Outfoxed about that).

Quakers ain't Amish (nor Shakers), but we all show up at the other end of the spectrum, favoring stripped down and spare -- some would call it austere (we say plain -- and mean that as a compliment). Out here on the Pacific Rim, Quaker and Japanese aesthetics have converged quite a bit. Zen, too, is stark, as was the Bay Area's est (I did Centers Network logistics for a spell in NJ/NYC, learned the skills). A related term is bleak, and is often applied to places like Pine Ridge (see the opening paragraph of On the Rez by Ian Frazier, a book I only discovered a few days ago, and am enjoying).

The science fiction genre often exploits the ability of artifacts to bespeak their multiculturalism: an away-team beams aboard some alien and perhaps oddly sinister-seeming craft and encounters control interfaces (somehow Spock always seemed to know what to do, uber-geek Vulcan that he was). I'm often on the lookout for Buckyesque hexapentalism -- seems like the Klingons "get it" a little more (the Federation always seems so square).

This Half Life 2 skin also supports more rectangular surfaces, e.g. to contain the visualizer (by the way, Apple's iTunes visualizer really blows me away with its kaleidoscopic range and nuance), but even these more traditional windows are "bumpy" i.e. graphic protuberances keep the windows from having perfectly straight edges.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

What's a BizMo?

Sprinter Westfalia from Airstream

They come in many makes on models, but are basically offices on wheels, variously purposed. In my case, what's on the drawing board is relatively small, compared to these big honkin' bus things you pass on Hwy 101, oft times towing an SUV and with who knows what godawful gpm (gallons per mile). My aim is high efficiency -- no guzzlers here. As the technology evolves, we'll hope to go F-cell or hybrid (hoping to not lose a lot of horses over that though).

Some of you may remember bookmobiles. These went out from library HQS to rural areas, and exposed kids to a wider selection than was probably offered in a one room school house with some faded Readers Digests in a pile. A bookmobile could be a real eye-opener. Like, wow, the world is big (visiting an ocean for the first time -- the other shoe dropping, for some).

So my bizmo is like a bookmobile on steriods ("on steroids" is a USA colloquialism that means amped, stoked, souped up, hot rodded, tricked out, buffed, X-treme, exaggerated to the point of being a caricature). However, the mission is similar: be an eye-opener for kids (adults too), a kind of avatar for that wired/wireless bright future world of scholarship and intelligence we call the Internet, or cyberspace. Standard equipment includes foam padded storage for laptop computers, space for a host CPU box with wireless, power outlets (internal and external). Room for a DVD juke box. Sleeps at least three. Packs a tent.

One goal is to be fairly self-sufficient when showing up at a school, religious institution, or commercial business, in terms of being equipped to share relevant presentations. The school may not have an LCD projector, or much of a sound system. The content will vary. If my wife is doing the presentation, it might be about holy wells in Ireland, or about her workshop with the Dalai Lama in Durban or something (she has lots of interests).

If it's me, we might review the basics of the Free Geek approach to helping the needy get nerdy: recycle those hand-me-down computers and slap on a Linux distro (like Windows on steroids under the hood). Another day, I might be showcasing Microsoft or Apple. Like those NASCARs, I have a lot of logos on my rig, even if they're only implied (squint in direct sunlight, and you'll see them shimmering, weirdly juxtaposed -- I call it (Bucky taught me that)).

However, like I said, bizmos come in all shapes and sizes (google tells me some bizmos are lesbian bimbos, an association I'm far from complaining about). Some will need to be bigger than others, simply because of their purpose or job description. A bizmo caravan might include a bus-looking thing outfitted with a kitchen kit; it feeds everybody on the crew. Hollywood knows all about such technology, and so does the military, after a fashion. Traveling circus. Grrrrrrr.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Nehalem Watershed (Wanderers meeting)

Today Jim Buxton, bookkeeper for the Upper Nehalem Watershed Council, enlightened us as to the important work of this nonprofit, and many like it around Oregon. People were interested and asked a lot of questions about the sciences involved, as well as about the politics.

I mentioned that his Council was unlike some others in our state in having no direct tribal involvement. As then governor Kitzhaber's letter to then president Clinton made clear, Oregon works closely with tribal leadership on issues like this, where long term care for the environment is involved (Jim circulated a copy of this letter, which helped establish these councils back in 1995 or so -- see House Bill 3441).

In the current political climate, budget pressures have become serious; the coordinator of eight years, who never experienced a pay increase, is now looking at a cut. Lottery money helps. Jim put it out to the group that funding is becoming a real priority. I suggested he might approach Spirit Mountain (there's some overlap at least in Tillamook and Washington Counties, in terms of purview). Provisions 2 and 5 of the Spirit Mountain guidelines suggest that the Council should seek funding for a specific new project or activity (e.g. a culvert replacement), as this need not be construed as replacing public funding.

Given my slant towards medical science, I was struck by the GIS displays: a watershed drainage system looks a lot like a heart. The water maybe flows in one direction, but the salmon, a key player in this system, go both directions, and blocked or badly designed culverts are akin to blocked arteries in the heart (culverts are like stents). The Council's job is to keep this 800 square mile part of Oregon from experiencing cardiac arrest. They do it on a shoestring.

The work is especially difficult in Tillamook, where every acre of grazable land, right up to the river's edge, is allocated to bovines. Tillamook cheese: clogging your arteries in more ways than one (I happen to love the stuff, but sometimes Yes Men need an evil slogan to help folks think more clearly).

Monday, December 06, 2004

Some Liberal Analysis

I posted this pithy summary of where I think we are right now, in the internal debate about how to go forward, to the math teacher list at the Math Forum.

The need to pit entire cultures against one another in to-the-death struggle for finite resources such as water and oil is based in obsolete reflex-conditioning, inherited from a darker age, before engineering reached its present level. Engineering keeps putting off that Malthusian day of reckoning, the big crunch, and it now sees ways to postpone this indefinitely.

The ethical responsibility of scientifically literate humans is to explain to the less literate that we have an alternative to the War on Terror. Something like my envisioned 24/7 geek channel might help send the message. We'd inject curriculum from our American Medal of Freedom winner Buckminster Fuller.

There'd be lots of role modeling and high technology in play here, too -- plus considerable effort to actually explain how it all works (the open source commitment, consistent with the USA's tradition of transparency in government).

This isn't about Hollywood lefties speaking out against Team America and trashing the right for its patriotism. We'll need help from the military and its computers, its massive databases, its disciplined rank and file, in order to succeed.
Clearly my analysis has been influence by that of South Park Studios.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Team America: World Police (movie review)

Every scene in this intentionally tasteless R-rated puppet show is a hackneyed movie cliche. It reads like a signal flare going off in the id of some media-drenched middle American: illuminating, lots of crazy-making ideation. I'm reminded of cave scenes in Aliens and Jeepers Creepers -- except the sheer ridiculousness of the puppets keeps us out of the horror genre -- just barely though, as horror often seeks the ridiculous, as in Evil Cult.

I bet Herr Freud would be impressed at the uninhibited gall our collective superego lets loose on the big screen. Who needs psychoanalysis when you've got South Park Studios and Viacom's Paramount for distribution?

The film investigates the rift between Hollywood lefties who bad-mouth America, versus the action figures living inside Mount Rushmore, who maybe get a little too violent and gung ho, but that's just human nature. The problem with the fag lefties is they become pawns of a greater enemy. Rushmore has to blast the Hollywood dupes to pieces in order to save the world (tsk).

I looked at a similar rift back in 1995 in my Tower of Babel essay. I prescribe invention in Language as the cure for what ails us. Almost ten years later, I find this essay essentially on target. Does Team America help heal the rift, or merely expose it? Even just the latter would be valuable, but clearly the "too violent and gung ho" puzzle is as yet unsolved -- I think because of weak economics (violence is a response to feeling weak).

Déjà vu

From Guernica by Picasso

Good reporting from a USA patriot and courageous journalist: Dahr Jamail originally of Houston, Texas. And check out this interview, from Newtopia (Vol III, Issue 19).

Thanks to the Internet, we're able to get outside the obnoxious little thought bubble some in the media want to create for us. Our liberties are not so easily curtailed. The USA is stronger because of this investment in networks and networking. Thank you DoD for ARPANET. Thank you Tim Berners-Lee, and Ted Nelson and, yes, thank you Al Gore.

Friday, December 03, 2004

More on the Geek Channel

My Geek Channel idea is really about the USA OS Project Renaissance initiative, which helps organize and formalize a culture of public/private collaboration around developing new civilian goods. NGOs and government agencies get into the act as front lines testing grounds.

For example, Mercedes-Benz is using some European cities as a testing ground for its Citaro F-Cell buses:
A total of 30 Mercedes-Benz Citaro buses will have been delivered in groups of three vehicles to ten European cities up to the end of 2003. This far-reaching programme of testing will be spread over two years and should provide detailed information on the scope for improvement in the vehicle technology itself, as far as the infrastructure is concerned and in terms of the necessary maintenance, service and support. [source]
The way you iron out the kinks in new technologies is to put them to work in tough circumstances, but with adequate safeguards. You need people with a pioneering spirit who will take risks. We could recruit ex-military, plus provide alternatives to the military.

The Geek Channel is just a puzzle piece in this vision. Take the high level media arts on display in Sesame Street, along with the community-building themes, and adapt these to impart information about TCP/IP, SQL, CPU architecture, web site design, XML, ecommerce and so on.

I know an 8th grader working with a sax parser in Python to reorganize his instant messenger contacts. His school teachers aren't up to speed on this stuff. But if they watch my channel, they soon will be.

Or maybe you'd prefer to watch the military channel?

Thursday, December 02, 2004


I just awoke from this dream. I was with college friends, two girls I knew. We were at this performance of Hamlet, by Laotians or some southeast Asian troupe. Didn't understand a word, nor recognize the scenes; most in the audience were following and engaged.

Then it was just me and this one girl, wandering in a public park, with connections to Rome. We were trying to figure out from maps where the ceramic tent might be. In real life, this was a kind, sweet girl, pretty too, that I once said something mean to -- thought it made sense at the time, but today I see myself just being a jerk.

I woke up thinking of times I'd been a disappointment to others, and later to myself, when I finally came to see my behavior more as they did. Sometimes there's a way to apologize directly. In this case, the dream was a gift, a time to just hang out with this girl and meditate on my mean streak.

When I was really young, I didn't like TV for adults (many kids don't), but when I did catch a soap opera while channel surfing, I'd always wonder why these people were so stupid. "Just tell the truth and unravel the knot!" was my sense of it. Impatience. I got it later that people in soaps are deliberately like that -- we have a god's eye view and feel superior. But there's a god's eye view on my life too, and it's called hindsight.

OK, pretty generic ruminations here -- I think most will relate. And the maddening part is, I know I'm screwing up in various ways today, that I'll look back on with regret. I'm still creating pain for myself. So while I'm in the mood to apologize to the cast of my past, I might as well issue a big apology to my present and future co-stars: yes, I'm mean sometimes, no question. I'm even this way on purpose, knowing it'll cost me, but wanting to give a strong performance.

Fuller writes a lot about the Doppler Effect. The varying rates at which the news catches up to us -- makes each private universe different. We each sort it differently, get the punchlines in a different order. I think of Kafka and The Harrow (a unique criminal sentence for each). I think of Venice and the Bridge of Sighs (wishing things had been different).

Well, this really is a middle-of-the-night confession -- still time for more dreams (ah, I see an allusion to Hamlet here, and the pottery barn reminds me of "you break it, you buy it").