Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Studio How To

So what might be a typical product of the Portland Tech District? Teaching videos for one.

I met my wife Dawn through the Center for Urban Education (CUE), which had several responsibilities, including refugee resettlement in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. When she came to work as our bookkeeper, I was off in Bhutan, doing volunteer dBase work while visiting my parents, both employees of the Kingdom.

Another focus was assisting NGOs (non-profits) with the newly emerging desktop publishing technology. Apple had given CUE a large equipment grant through Steve Johnson, and small activist organizations were only too happy to stop by and use PageMaker and the LaserWriter. I trained older workers in the use of office software, initially on Apple 2es, but eventually IBM PC type technology. Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, dBase and so on.

Yes, I'm showing my age.

Now, two decades later, we're looking back at the open source revolution (still ongoing) and seeing a bewildering array of free, customizable software suitable for NGO use. And indeed, many activist organizations have taken to this new working environment like fish to water. Yet at least as many are still confused and feel left out.

Collaborative Technologies @ FreeGeek, under the leadership of Ron Braithwaite, made an heroic effort to bridge the cultural divide between geeks and social activists, but rather than assume a more generic training function, we dove in deep with a single client, HomeStreet.

Our small network of entrepeneurial affiliates was suddenly up to its ears in SQL Clinic, and setting up a multi-office network with a wireless bridge, and kept at it long after the money ran out to pay for all this.

We had a couple Penguin Days, day-long open house events, thanks to David Pool, but here we are entering the summer of 2006 and is the nonprofit leadership any more comfortable with the new technology? I still see a lot of unmet need.

NGOs need more customized assistance, in the form of orientations and videos.

These videos needn't be boring. They should employ open source techniques, such as recycling clips from a growing database, a commons. Technology companies don't have to synch too tightly with the editors. Somehow, we need to teach about TCP/IP, gateways, DNS, SMTP, Apache, the difference between client and server side programs. Tech companies could start filling the archive with their logo-identified wares.

Splicing together clips from many sources, even while adding fresh material, is how scholars have traditionally kept the curriculum up to date, though in the past more with text than with video and audio.

That's a main difference these days: scholarship and teaching isn't so exclusively text-based any more, thanks to television and the Internet.

So, what's the missing ingredient? For starters, large databases of freely accessible and recyclable audio and video clips. We could start with "anything our taxes have already paid for."

Vid clips recently mentioned on edu-sig: [1][2]
Random Google Videos: [1][2][3]

Saturday, May 27, 2006

TV Commercial

The hypertoon idea is as follows: start with a smattering of nodes, your switch points; connect the dots by various smooth transformations; generate animations from this network, possibly randomizing at the switch points.

Example transformation: a Fuller Projection develops from a globe by flattening into an icosahedron, then unfolds, then refolds but just to the icosahedron frame (a node) i.e. no puffing back into a globe.

Here, the projected global data (whatever it was) might fade, taking us to the more Platonic version of the icosa (fewer secondary features, although for TV you'd probably still want color).

This icosa might then acquire its dual, the pentagonal dodeca (I drop the "hedron" for brevity). They'd combine into the rhombic triaconta and then explode in a rain of T-turned-E modules (end of sequence).

Yes, that's a very esoteric cartoon I just described. Whatever company produced it must really know some design science. Pretty geeky if you ask me. And all that just to sell me some digital camera. Or was it a satellite service?

Anyway, I'm surprised we even have companies that knowledgeable. Certainly most are not. I should remember that logo.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Coffee Shop Physics

Dr. Bob Fuller was just by, enroute to return the rented van before flying back to his headquarters in Nebraska. Bob's been surveying physics departments about their use of computers, helping lay the groundwork for an upcoming issue of Computing in Science and Engineering.

Survey question: do you have a separate computation course and what languages and/or software packages do you use, if any?

I was somewhat amazed at how many are still teaching FORTRAN. I realize some of the best time-tested libraries persist in this language and I could see wrapping these libraries in a Python namespace, say, but not teaching FORTRAN as a productivity tool.

C++/C and Java rank next.

Then you have applications like Mathematica, MathCAD and Matlab. Bob had Python filed under this heading because VPython is maybe an application more than a bare bones computer language, and that's what some physics departments currently use.

I promised I'd provide Bob with a link to Another Alien Curriculum (2003), as he hadn't followed the action where Dr. R. R. Hake gave it a positive review, as that happened on math-teach @ the Math Forum more than on PHYSLRNR.

If Bernie Gunn's remarks are indicative, the computer science world hasn't done enough to keep other scientists in the loop, such that supposedly "easy" languages like Python instead come across as intimidating, jargon-filled, alien. Bernie is a geochemist with plenty of programming experience from the days of Fortran and Pascal:
The problem is what with populations out of control, religious wars, desertification, (and 15 million illegal immigrants) etc etc upon us we have a lot of problems to solve. And the average scientist has been shut out of using the best tool going, the good old PC. Talk to as many academics as you like, most can use email and digital camera storage and that is all. (Thu 5/25/2006 11:38 PM)
How can we fix this? Is scipy friendly enough for a beginner? As a member of the Python community, I feel motivated to help close this communications gap.

One strategy would be to start much earlier with the programming. I've outlined one possible solution in my recent Fuller School memo (5/23/2006) to the Math Forum.

Although I'm focusing on K12 in this memo, new adult education pathways might be pioneered along the same lines, i.e. let's study "math objects" (including colorful/textured polyhedra) in some extensible type system such as Python provides.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

More Meanderings

I've been criss-crossing paths with fellow dreamweavers of late, segueing threads. For example, here's a trail head near Mt. Hood Community College.

Tara is playing CivIV on TMU behind me. Dawn is in the living room, preparing for a trip to Cannon Beach with her cousin, O2 in tow.

Lynn just called, in her Bridge City Friends Meeting capacity. I appreciate all the help we're getting during this difficult time.

Last night I celebrated my birthday some more with friends Matthew and Michael. We went to the Lucky Lab, then Rimsky-Korsikoffee.

It's a quiet First Day, not too hot.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Some Autobio

Maybe this'd be more appropriate in BizMo Diaries, given it's autobio, but Grain of Sand was my first blog that I bonded with, so here goes.

Like Woody Allen, I thought Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death was a strong contribution to psychology, which in turn led me to Norman O. Brown's Love's Body, which I really got into.

It was through these readings, and through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (one of my chief concerns at Princeton) that I felt led to American Transcendentalism and Positive Futurism, in the form of Fuller's and Applewhite's Synergetics. I've always read it as a network of semi-metaphorical verities (1005.52), invisibly and tensively cohered, as did the authors.

I've been alluding to what I call Apocalyptic Christians over on Quaker-P, and feel led to explain a bit. Christianity has the somewhat earned reputation for always expecting a Great Cataclysm within the lifetimes of whomever happens to be controlling the pulpit for the time being.

I think this apocalyptic streak puts an unfair burden on other religions also hoping and helping to steer (and they have every right).

I thank our Loving God that only a small minority of Christians are of an apocalyptic persuasion, but some of them have identified as Friends in the past, i.e. as Quakers, i.e. as so-called "members" of our Religious Society.

So I feel some sense of personal obligation, given I also identify as a Friend, to disassociate myself from those thinking ordinary death in an ordinary age isn't good enough, and that they deserve a front row seat on whatever great destruction awaits.

To these selfish self-chosen, the idea of humanity rolling forward for many more millenia, growing in competence and satisfaction with Creation, is an anathema. They want to see the End Times, and the sooner the better.

Me, I aim to be ordinary. I'm just another guy headed for the grave, and happy to have this time with ya'll (you're wonderful).

And I do sense our persistence in a poetic sort of way. Our 4D++ appearance, as a piece on the board, is like a signature. We may live on to witness the fruits of our handiwork.

My goal, as a man in the rear view mirror waving, is to wish ya'll in the future my very best. Live on, love on, and prosper. Walk cheerfully and tread lightly over the earth.

Now, I must get back to work. Circumstances remain pressing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Wanderers 2006.5.16

Astute readers will note that I've been missing some of these Wanderers meetings lately, or have at least failed to provide write-ups.

Given I now do all the driving in our nuclear family (plus friends have been helping out a lot), I have less leeway to show up in the mornings in particular. I missed by all reports a good one on Christianity, presented by a local author with a fun sail boat -- not much wind that day I was aboard, but it also has a small motor.

We also had a two-part presentation on quantum gravity, both of which I missed (but heard about from Sam Lanahan at a chance encounter during birthday celebrations at Lloyd Center).

I did make last night's presentation though, by Adam Reid (at least in part -- I made a quick trip to Providence at the outset, where Dawn's shy veins had frustrated every attempt to pierce them -- so she's trying again now). Adam spoke about Portland's innovative new public high school, LÊP, which is gearing up to receive its first students on August 1.

Rather than post my write-up here in Grain of Sand though, I posted a few words at in math-teach, an open, unmoderated web-archived Forum I've frequented for many years by now (so don't ever expect me to believe that math teachers lack passion -- I've learned otherwise).

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

OSCON 2006

I doubt I'll be attending the conference proper this year, though I'll likely lurk around the edges, hobnobbing with principals.

I don't have a bizmo yet, which would have merited some show and tell. But Pythonic Mathematics isn't news anymore, at least not among geeks in the know.

Sure, I have the money to rent or buy an RV and outfit it as a business on wheels, but that's not the point. Either it's part of a bigger civilian corporate effort to outreach to schools using cybervans, or it's just a personal hobby. I'm not into it as a personal hobby.

That being said, we may rent an RV this summer. Dawn's health is the wild card. Today she's suffering shortness of breath, a worrisome sign. We may need to change treatment strategies.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Trojan Implosion

The infamous cooling tower on the Oregon side of that north- flowing segment of Columbia, is these days being stuffed with dynamite in preparation for the big blowup next week.

Per The Oregonian, traffic will be stopped on both sides of the river, plus overhead. People are welcome to stay home and watch everything unfold via TV's carefully controlled control rooms.

Future OPB type documentaries about Trojan might want to follow my trail through Asia Pacific Issues News (APIN), a regional intelligence journal I co-edited (apprenticing under Paulette) and then pretty much soloed for AFSC, way back when Belau was still a nuclear free zone (the USA State Department took care of that defiant lot, re-enjoined 'em to slavery with the usual promises of easy money, and over the objections of the activist voters (since when did we listen to women, anyway?)).

Various prefectures in Japan were all up-in-arms about the microfractures developing in their Trojan lookalikes. The discussion here in Oregon, on the other side of the Pacific Rim, was far less technical in nature, but just as charged politically. And of course this was really a lot about Chernobyl. People now knew it could happen. Three Mile Island had also been close.

The Columbia is famous for its nuclear icons. Putting on my Chamber of Commerce hat, I have to say I'm a little sorry our decommissioned Trojan won't be around to haunt the scene, as a ghostly reminder of Homer Simpson's day in the sun. Hollywood may end up burning millions merely to recreate it, as a great backdrop for more of those "day after" nuclear meltdown type scenarios.

But we still have Hanford, aka the historic site of the Manhatten Project (more links to Japan). No one knows how to shred the memory of that one, especially given it's a very active official superfund disaster, with all the gory details (well, some of them) on display in the public area at OMSI and/or on 60 Minutes.

Then we have the nerve gas stash near Hermiston.

Ecotourism anyone? You too could pay the big bucks to study the folly of man, and, more to the point, our extensive (and expensive) cleanup efforts. How're we doing, in your estimation? Maybe take a few lessons back home? About how not to do things in some instances?

AP photo, May 21

Friday, May 12, 2006

Dumbing Down for Dummies

So if you're a politician and want to wield power in some lame and inept way, such that ordinary voters come to respect you enough to kiss butt, what should you do?

First: make it all be about money. Real substance doesn't matter, just talk about who will pay for it, which groups will need to dig deep, which might be undeserving and so on.

"Playing politics" is all about enjoying gratuitous power over others, and money is your chief weapon. Any time the discussion veers off into some technical area having to do with science or engineering, find a way to insinuate the money talk.

Budgets, chambers of commerce, lobbying groups, PACs -- you know the lingo. As long as money or the lack thereof is the number one issue, you're king of the hill. Remember that. Avoid substance. Be a king.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


So I'm just getting my feet wet in this open source animations package, originally pioneered at Disney in support of ToonTown Online. Now it's being hosted at Carnegie Mellon.

At this point, I'm mostly just trying to pick up the basics of the genre: scene graph, models, textures, behaviors.

You'd think I'd already know this stuff, but distance education scholarships were still pretty rare in my middle years.

[I just saw a note from Chris Fearnley about some tensegrity he committed to a time capsule in Philadelphia c/o a business journal -- it's a short haul capsule, going to just 2015]

Most middle class adults couldn't afford to seriously study without losing their livelihoods. This tended to paralyze the economy, with too many would-be students unhappy in their dead-end jobs, piling up debts while a lot of important work went undone.

In the mean time, our on-board intelligence community (IC) had just barely attained critical mass, having suffered years of neglect at the hands of fear-mongering politicians.

For practice, I'm pulling instances of subclasses of my Polyhedron class out of my rbf.py (e.g. cubocta = rbf.Cubocta()) and writing them to disk as .egg files using Panda's API (lots of Egg classes).

My two modules of today ([1][2]) are sort of working, except the resulting shape is too Darth Vadery. I can't get the dang thing to illuminate. I'll blame incomplete documentation how 'bout i.e. not Congress this time?

Panda3D animations I'd like to see: a regular tetrahedron splits apart into 24 A modules; a regular octahedron splits into 48 A mods + 48 B mods. We'd like students to actually pass our basic IQ test before joining our IC.

The export license says I'm not supposed to download this stuff in Libya, which seems obsolete. No mention is made of Baghdad though, so I'm assuming my cowriters in Algebra City could develop scene graphs of their own.

Given Panda3D is runnable on Ubuntu and Fedora, I'm thinking low-cost, money-efficient TuxLab type operations scattered around town, gradually hooking up to the optical fiber infrastructure; the germs of a new think tank economy, much as we're germinating here in Portland.

If/when I get a prettier cubocta, perhaps with a little help from my friends, I'll add a screen shot to this post. I'm also interested in boning up on Soya3D, another open source games and simulations engine, and perhaps even legal in Cuba.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Blabbing on edu-sig

using Xgl on SUSE at Novell

From the Python in Education eGroup I'm on; cutting and pasting, adding hyperlinks.

If you've seen one of Miguel's demos of the new Novell desktop, you'll know we're already moving to more 3D motifs at the level of OS GUI, complete with the rotating cube between the six desktops, with a Quicktime movie able to wrap around an edge while still playing (flashing back to an OSCON).

I think we'd like to be able to call up a writing surface, able to take source code, from within a 3D world, such as by unscrolling a canvas-like object plucked from a metallic tube, textures and everything. And as we've seen in Squeak, when every graphical type object has a strong shared set of base methods, then even buttons can be grabbed and tilted (not just depressed).

Per recent Mono or .NET presentations of IronPython: so you want every button on your GUI calculator rotated counter- clockwise by 45 degrees? No problem. That's just the trend in GUIs these days, with GNOME very much a trailblazer (wow, svg screen icons!).

So the engines I'm envisioning at some level might just be the next generation OSs of choice, and their accompanying GUI session managers. If sufficiently integrated and interoperable (we have a ways to go), we might call this Squeaky clean. Think Emacs = eToy.

But I don't think we can stop there. More specialized apps, on top of the OSs, will provide their own vocabulary of 3D components (objects), be they widget type, animal type, or whatever. You'll be able to script their behaviors and interactions, oft times by typing, as the base source continues to be lexical (versus say hieroglyphic, which more characterizes the desktop icons level).

Such applications entail an event model, lots of hooks, and mechanisms for persistence across sessions. The OS offers an API for all of this, yes, but not always at a high enough level. By design. Managing some "higher level" is not really the OS's job.

A layer of "education applications" wrapped around various spatial geometry animation engines is reasonable to anticipate, plus I expect many of them will come with Python bindings, although not necessarily exclusively (any number of languages should be enabled to play, by giving them some shared target language -- precisely the intent of the .NET design, and Parrot's).

Friday, May 05, 2006

Wanderers 2006.5.3

Michael Bolus shares about ChiGong
(photo by K. Urner)

Tuesday night's guest relayed a fascinating personal journey focusing on the theme of physical health.

Michael, now age 53, was hit by a truck while riding a bicycle in his early 20s, and spent the next 16 years visiting specialist after specialist, as his health and pain just continued to get worse. He had some vertabrae twisted out of alignment, resulting in continual back pain and spasms, plus other problems and symptoms.

Then he read about ChiGong, a Chinese healing art, in some airline magazine and a few days later drove the 300 miles to Chicago (ouch!) for an introductory lecture. Given the low quality of life he was experiencing, he was at this point willing to try anything.

He went in a skeptic, and would have left early in disillusionment if he hadn't already plunked down the money. But after the lunch break, he experienced a breakthrough in his meditation. For the first time in 16 years, he felt bliss and temporary freedom from pain.

The Chinese teacher didn't believe him (beginners aren't supposed to attain such dramatic results in so short a time) and didn't want a continuing relationship, so Michael practiced on his own, overdoing it (a common pitfall among beginners), plunging into fear, anxiety and sleeplessness.

However, he had the gift, and under proper tutelage and after years of study was able to master many elements of this Chinese healing art, resulting in a healed body. He even remedied a congenital heart condition and overcame his crippling allergic reaction to second hand smoke, both of which had played a major role in his childhood.

Now he practices ChiGong for a living and claims some dramatic successes in alleviating the pain of others. He doesn't need to touch his patients. He mostly works over the phone.

Wanderers, those present being Occidentals, were quite properly skeptical and looked for holes in this story. Don offered up a shoulder pain for self-healing and thought it felt better after the demo, but wasn't entirely persuaded he'd been helped. I don't know if anyone was convinced.

Michael emphasized that leaps of faith were not required for ChiGong to be effective. Given the results in his own life, he was clearly confidant in his abilities, plus had an Oriental belief system which explained these abilities to his own personal satisfaction.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Barrel Tower

A tensegrity sculpture by Kenneth Snelson
(a gift to Kirby Urner, October 2001)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


I see lots of fancy maneuvering in the political sphere. If I were an airplane pilot, I'd use some metaphor about wing flaps.

I'm not experiencing too much turbulance though. We're very used to unpopular and/or crooked politicians and CEOs so this is pretty standard scenery.

True: globalization is messy. But our telecommunications infrastructure is working pretty well, enabling big picture views.

Per What the Bleep and related literature, it's quite possible to become addicted to fear. If the fear level doesn't feel high enough, one worries about "losing touch with reality."

These differences in fear level may be intergenerational as in "those dirty hippies just don't fear the communists enough, or they wouldn't be skipping off to Canada, leaving their country undefended against falling dominos."

But that's not to say those hippies were living without fear. Maybe the difference was less a matter of fear level than of fear focus.

They listened, as wide-eyed children, to Eisenhower's military-industrial complex speech, and took it to heart. Some even joined Canada's clandestine services to fight their own personal dragons and demons.