Archive for March, 2010

Scything?

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Early Friday I drove down to my childhood home to sit with Mom, my sisters, and MA while my Dad had some minor surgery. The surgery itself was quick, but there was lots of waiting time before and after, and I began to craft a posting about some of the things I was pondering during the waiting time, particularly my relationship with my father.

After he was back home and “normalcy” was restored, I drove back to my home and watched my nephew play a Friday high school baseball game. We had a nice Mexican dinner out with more family. Saturday we worked in the yard with help from daughter, boyfriend, and 3 granddogs. Saturday night was another dinner out in the Hispanic tradition, Cuban this time. Sunday morning was lazy, Sunday afternoon continued the laziness with an extended episode of Columbo (the pilot I think, the first-season DVDs having been a Christmas gift), and I closed out Sunday with a 3-hour long chat with a friend over Jasmine tea and Thai appetizers about everything from scything as a meditation technique (bonus: makes a cool Halloween prop) to deep technical details about 3D rendering (warning: don’t get me started).

Breakfast this morning at Kia-Ora included background chatter about the fact that T-Mobile cell phone service was down (thankfully, not my problem), Leonard Cohen’s inspirational Walkin’ in Memphis, and the arrival of the Masada Bakery truck (“Fulfilling your basic kneads since 1981”), at whose wheels I was tempted to kneel in adoration. But I resisted.

This morning I finally concluded that an adequate posting about the relationship between me and my Dad will take more time and thought that I can supply today. (Quick summary: Father-son relationships are often challenging, but I am very grateful for the love and support he has always provided his family, especially me.) It’s an important topic that I don’t want to treat lightly, so it will have to wait for another weekend.

For anyone with a technical thirst, I offer the following cool items from the April issue of Technology Review:


  • Zomm: Key-fob device that sounds an alarm if you get more than a few yards (meters, if you are in Canada) away from your cell phone. zomm.com
  • AR Drone: Flying toy that is controlled by iPod/iTouch over WiFi, complete with camera feedback. ardrone.parrot.com
  • Hydrofill: Personal hydrogen refueling station that uses AC or solar panels to charge metal hydride cartridges, which in turn can be used to supply power to portable devices. horizonfuelcell.com
  • Pocket radar gun: $250-dollar device for coaches and athletes. pocketradar.com

Coherence

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Note: The following is based on recollection rather than research, so consume it with caution.

Light

Light has always seemed sorta mystical to me. When scientists finally developed the tools to measure its speed, they discovered that it didn’t obey Newton’s laws. Newton’s laws are not related to the similarly-named, durable, fruit-filled cookie, but refer to the temporal and spatial rules that describe the behavior of normal objects such as billiard balls and racing cars. So physicists had to supplement Newton’s laws with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, who, despite this accomplishment, unfortunately does not yet have a cookie that shares his name. The point is, light is strange, fascinating, and largely inexplicable to most of us normal mortals.

Anniversary

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser. For some reason, I have maintained a peculiar interest in lasers, exceeding my usual fascination with things technical. The laser’s actual invention, during my elementary school years, occurred without my noticing it, perhaps due in part to Frances Sue, Nancy, and other classmates who were busily attracting my attention at the time. My first encounter with this new form of light was during my high school years. Popular Science magazine published an article describing this new invention and how it worked. I’m pretty sure I did at least one science project that involved a drawing or model of a laser, and it’s probably still in my attic at home.

Ruby

To the best of my recollection, the original laser was made of a ruby rod, carefully polished on both ends to produce parallel faces, one of which was silvered. The rod was surrounded by a twisted light source, a strobe if I remember correctly. When the external light source was pulsed, some of the emitted light entered the ruby rod and began to bounce from one polished end to the other, like a demented spring. Eventually some of the light waves busily bouncing from end to end would combine with other waves of the same phase, and they would build up enough energy to burst out of the end of the ruby rod in a pulse of coherent light.

Coordination

The characteristic that makes laser light significant is called coherence. Most naturally occurring light sources (the sun and stars, campfires, flashlights, flourescent bulbs, cartoon idea symbols) emit light waves that are scattered, out of phase, random, and disorganized, like most of my writing. Lasers, on the other hand, emit light that is organized and in phase – in a word, coherent. This characteristic means that laser light is in some ways even more amazing than “normal” light. While most automobile headlight beams, regardless of their power, scatter out to a wide, nearly invisible dimness within a few miles or so, a sufficiently powerful laser can shine its tightly-columnated beam all the way to the moon, broadening to a relatively small circle, around a mile in diameter.

Hijinx

A few years after the Popular Science article was published, I walked into a college physics lab and beheld an actual working helium-neon laser. And not just one, but one on every lab bench. Lasers were practically a commodity. That was enough to make my tiny technological head spin.

It was also enough to give clever college students, who shall remain unnamed, some crazy ideas. If you were walking across the Tech campus in the late sixties/early seventies and remember a strange, bright red light appearing on the sidewalk in front of you, just chalk it up to youthful physicists experimenting with their new toys. And if you are a campus security office who not only saw such a red light, but also shone your flashlight on it, and attempted to chase it around the corner of the building, perhaps an apology is in order. And if either of the aforementioned looked at the roof of the physics building for an explanation and saw only a faint blue glow, well, let’s just say now you have your explanation.

Of course, compared to streaking and other college adventures of that time, playing with a low-power laser was pretty innocent. No headlines were made, nor embarrassing photos taken, and no animals were harmed, etc., etc.

Brightness

Since those early days, the application of lasers and coherent light have amplified (obscure pun intended) a wide range of human endeavors, from making weapons, improving measurements, correcting vision, guiding circular saws, aiding fiber optic communication, entertaining us with CDs, DVDs, and laser light shows, all the way down to providing cat toys and adding a desperately needed colorful distraction to thousands of boring PowerPoint presentations. We now have lasers too big to fit in the average garage, and small enough to fit on your key ring. And the ruby rod was long ago replaced by electro-chemical processes that I don’t fully understand. (Perhaps it’s time for another science fair project.)

In closing I must note that laser light isn’t good for everything. You can’t use it to read by, or to get a tan. It’s not good for taking pictures of your family, or providing general illumination. The uses for ordinary, non-coherent light have not been filled by laser technology.

But I continue to be impressed by the power of tightly-focused, synchronized light to accomplish amazing tasks, and I have particularly enjoyed watching a clever invention change the world in many diverse ways.

Happy Birthday, Laser!

Regular

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Although I usually manage to do lots of things in the course of a normal week, I don’t write about many of them due to various agreements and understandings marital, familial, and corporate. The remainder of my activities tend to be more mundane, so I am usually forced to reference or echo the work of others, or write about technical matters, often at great length. I doubt that even my Mom, whose patience often puts Job to shame, can wade through my lengthier passages, which includes pretty much all of them.

So today I’m pleased to announce that, thanks to a relatively full dance card this past week, today’s post will be shorter, plainer, and more typical of the average web log. Just to prove it can be done, I will not be including any links or even any photos. Just words, and the fewest possible (thanks, in part, to practicing Twitter’s 140- character limit.)

Wednesday night we dog-sat two young huskies overnight, Kodi & Cheyenne. Other than some muddy footprints and a little night whining, they were delightful. (At this point I am strongly tempted to insert a photo. You’ll just have to use your imagination.)

Thursday night was relatively calm. We watched some TV and recovered from sleep lost to puppy play on Wednesday.

Friday night was much more active, including three automobile trips with friends and relations, a trip to Little Five Points, hours of pleasant eating drinking and chatting, occasionally even about meaningful things. I got to bed around 2:30 AM Saturday.

Saturday morning included a brisk and pleasant walk with Stella (f.k.a. “the White Tornado”). (Note that I am again resisting another photo insertion opportunity.) I spent an hour or so late morning remotely resolving an AT&T issue with a customer in Houston, pre-emptively changed most of our clocks to Daylight Savings Time, then went tool shopping and tire buying with Bo in the afternoon, ending the evening with a “guy shower” for my nephew that was more fun than any of us expected, mostly due to the presence of so much hardware store schwag, and a constant stream of guy-type humor.

Sunday Jayne and I visited my folks, where I pruned four of their fruit trees, did some miscellaneous home repair, drank lots of coffee, sat with my Dad and watched Ga Tech almost beat Duke in the ACC final plus an hour or so of golf, then we headed back home to prepare for that missing hour of sleep.

All in all, it was a very pleasant week.

I hope yours was, too.

Happiness By Design

Monday, March 8th, 2010

HAPPINESS

Yesterday I listened to a fascinating talk on experience and memory by Daniel Kahneman, psychiatrist and Nobel laureate. His talk is pretty wide ranging. Near the beginning, he explains how to make colonoscopies seem less of a pain in the, er, rear. At the end of the talk, he explains an old Bell Labs comment I’ve wondered about for years, that money isn’t a motivator, but lack of money is a de-motivator. In the middle of the talk, he mentions that, for most of us, happiness is spending time with people you like.

That is certainly true for me. But there are other less social things that also bring me pleasure, and about which I shall now opine. Perhaps the number two non-social activity that brings me pleasure is problem-solving. I’m not talking about problems like adding up rows of numbers (although I do have some very fond early memories of doing basic math, and I have a cousin who makes my day when she occasionally forwards a math challenge). By problem-solving, I mean things like figuring out why an electronic device, mechanical contraption, or software application isn’t working the way it is supposed to. Or how to demonstrate a new (shameless corporate promotion warning) U-verse feature idea in an efficient and understandable way. Or even how to get people I love to do what is good for them.

Not only does actually solving a problem bring me pleasure, but even the process of noodling it over, researching, trying ideas, using all the tricks I can think of, for hours, days, even weeks, is really enjoyable to me. Years ago I repaired an ancient vacuum-tube-based moisture meter belonging to a small concrete company located out in the sticks. It took me a year (calendar, not person-) of research, experimentation, and testing, but I finally figured it out. I sent it back to them, along with a circuit diagram, saying that if they had not replaced by now, they had surely learned to live without it, so I wasn’t going to charge them for the repair. I never heard back from them, but I was satisfied at having solved the problem.

But even more than problem-solving, I enjoy good design. I guess that makes sense, since good design is like preemptive problem-solving. I particularly enjoy coming up with a good design myself, but since that happens pretty rarely, I fortunately get nearly the same pleasure from recognizing good designs by others.

Of course, there are all kinds of good design. Perhaps the most common design decisions we see are incremental improvements, making things better by small steps. We see these in almost every object we encounter: cars, tea kettles, socket wrenches, computer hardware, plastic lids for disposable coffee cups. But my particular favorites are successful designs that differ significantly from previous efforts, such as Nintendo’s Wii video game, about which too much has already been written for me to add my meager comments, but which has clearly been a game-changer.

Some of my personal heroes in the design world are Donald Norman, author of The Psychology of Everyday Things (re-published as The Design of Everyday Things), and the unfortunately late Jef Raskin, who made significant contributions to the Mac interface, and who also wrote the powerful book The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems. If you are interested in design, I recommend these highly.

There are plenty of examples of good design that, like the Wii, have been throughly analyzed, including most Apple products and the Google search engine. On the opposing side, there are tons of examples of poor designs, those “what were they thinking” situations we all encounter entirely too frequently. In fact, most of the time users blame themselves (“I never will understand computers”), the problem can be traced to poor design. But, as much fun as it might be to jump on the poor designs of others, I shall resist the urge.

A FEW FAVORITE DESIGNS

FrameMaker

Sometime around 1990, BellSouth’s Science and Technology organization selected a program called FrameMaker as their document creation tool. FrameMaker was available for the three major computer platforms we used, Windows, Mac, and Unix/Solaris. FrameMaker files could be moved between these platforms without requiring conversion, which was nothing short of miraculous at the time. Drawings worked across platforms – another miracle. The more I used it, the better I liked it. Designed for the creation of large documents by teams of writers, it also worked well for the solo author. It included a drawing package that is still one of the most intuitive I have used. It supported styles and tables long before Word, and supported the use of frames to allow absolute positioning of images and text blocks. One of my most enjoyable discoveries was that the text and image frames could be nested multiple layers deep. Although it has only been useful a few times, just discovering that it can be done delighted me no end.

FrameMaker used a proprietary file format, but it also could produce several forms of text-based format, including rtf and a variant of SGML that allowed for all sorts of post-processing shenanigans. It supported a book function that smoothly combined independently-produced document sections, and, most important of all, as Jef Raskin recommends, it didn’t screw up your data. It could handle huge and complex files without crashing, and didn’t arbitrarily renumber stuff or change formats, unlike other popular word processing programs.

I have created literally thousands of FrameMaker documents over the years, and I can still open the oldest with the current version of FrameMaker. While most of my use was work-related, a few years ago I purchased a personal copy to use at home.

FrameMaker has wound up in the Adobe stable, and, despite a couple of product stumbles over the past few years, seems to be alive and well.

Good design.

Unix

My first encounter with the Unix operating system was in 1973 on a DEC PDP 11/45 minicomputer that was dwarfed by its nearest neighbor, a 40-foot-long Burroughs 5500 mainframe. Thanks to Mac’s OS X and Linux, I still use the commands I learned back then.

There’s a lot that can be said about Unix, but my favorite part is that it includes hundreds of tightly defined, highly predictable, carefully documented commands that can be used alone or strung together to produce a complex result. And because each piece was carefully made, the commands just work.

Clearly one characteristic of good design is that it stands the test of time.

Hardware

My appreciation for good design is not limited to just software. One Tree Hill (the band, not the TV show) has been using a Mackie sound board for years. I have a small one on my desk at work. They are flexible, functional, understandable, rugged, reliable, and quiet. Not to mention that the original user’s manual was not only very useful, it was also hilarious. Mackie has changed hands recently, which doesn’t always bode well for good design (has something to do with reducing cost to justify the acquisition, I think), so I don’t know about the newer Mackie equipment. But the early stuff is solid.

And while we’re on the subject of band gear, one of my favorite designs is the original Rock-n-Roller cart. It’s light enough to pick up with one hand, collapses small enough to fit into a car trunk, but it is stout enough to tote 300 pounds of oddly-shaped sound gear. I have bought several over the years, and my original gray and red cart is still in great working order. Like Mackie, they were acquired, and went through a phase of visibly poor manufacturing quality, but the new ones look pretty good.

Good designs.

Non-technical stuff

Good design is not just object-oriented. In my opinion, good design can be applied to a carefully constructed poem, novel, documentary, or any tangible artistic expression, even a (personal bias alert) good song.

Sensitize yourself to good design. Learn to recognize it. Seek it out. Avoid bad design.

Hopefully it will make you a happier person.

OTHER

Newsletters

Yesterday I was loooking for the broadcast schedule for Krista Tippet’s Speaking of Faith radio program, and I discovered that public radio offers a way to sign up for e-mail newsletters. This link will let you sign up for Krista’s weekly newsletter and more. Among others, I signed up for the daily Writer’s Almanac newsletter, and got my first dose of poetry this morning. I feel more sensitive already.

Carltoon

Like all of us, I’m always fascinated to find my name in a cartoon or comic strip. For some reason, I can’t relate to the Carls in most comics. But this one was a little different. Not only does he represent a bit of a problem-solving mentality, I think there is a slight resemblance.

retool2

Differences

Monday, March 1st, 2010

RESEARCH

Since being dragged into adulthood, I’ve wondered why otherwise intelligent-seeming people don’t think like me. Well, it turns out that I’m not the only one who has wondered. There is a group called the Cultural Cognition Project, who is pondering why, when presented with a set of facts, different people respond differently, or, as they put it, “how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs.”

“Cultural cognition” refers to the tendency of persons to base their factual beliefs about the risks and benefits of a putatively dangerous activity on their cultural appraisals of these activities. From a psychological point of view it is easier to believe that behavior one finds noble is socially beneficial, and that behavior one finds debased is dangerous, than vice versa. Persons who are “individualistic” and “hierarchical” in their cultural worldviews tend to dismiss claims of environmental risk, for example, because acknowledging such hazards would threaten the autonomy of markets and the authority of social elites. Persons who hold “egalitarian” and “communitarian” worldviews, on the other hand, take environmental risks seriously because they believe unregulated markets are a source of inequality and, therefore, harmful to society. [See End Notes, below, for Reference.]

Here’s another quote from the Cultural Cognition site: “In debates over climate change, gun control, the HPV vaccine, and myriad other risks, Americans respond to scientific data in much the same way sports fans react to disputed calls on the playing field–cheering or booing based on how the evidence affects their ‘team.’ A paper published in Nature links this dynamic to cultural cognition and addresses what can be done to counteract it.” The paper is here.

Of course, the Cultural Cognition people may just think that way because of their cultural perspective. 🙂

TEMPLE


Until HBO made a movie about her, Temple Grandin was known only to cattle handlers and readers of books by Oliver Sacks.

Temple recently spoke on her autism at a TED conference, and her twenty-minute talk was fascinating, educational, and challenging, particularly for those of us who wonder why people think and perceive as they do. As an example, when most people hear “steeple” they conjure up a vague image of a pointy thing on top of a building. But an image-oriented person like Temple Grandin flips through a series of specific steeples stored in her memory, things she has actually seen and cataloged. There is, of course, much more than that in her talk.

Her talk is well worth the time. It will change what you think you know about autism. And about thinking.

CARTOON

The comic page is my one nonnegotiable newspaper destination. Depending on the scope, insight, and hilarity of a good comic, I am often tempted to re-tell it, stick it to the refrigerator, share it with co-workers (or sometimes my wife’s co-workers), and/or post it on the ‘net. Fortunately, I have worked hard over the years to build up my resistance muscles to the point they are almost visible in photos. (Indolence, not to mention the difficulty of finding scissors, also helps.)

But when I find a ‘toon that combines multiple interests, I succumb. Like this Speed Bump, which combines community and technology, with a dash of feisty elderhood:

bookclub-sm

End Notes and Updates

The long, italicized quote under RESEARCH is from a paper analyzing reactions to nanotechnology. The paper can be downloaded here.

In my Jan 25 posting, “Thresholds”, I referred to setting sail on Organization Adventure. I’ve stalled out a bit on the financial organization part (hey, it’s barely even March), but I have more or less maintained my morning walks. And this weekend I configured my e-mail organization rules, including a new one: Social Networking. I get enough Facebook notes to warrant a category, plus the occasional Twitter update.

Wait – did he just say ‘Twitter? Yes I did. Recently a friend at work requested some assistance in checking a particular Twitter function for possible patent infringement, so I created a Twitter account. For some reason, I’ve been actually posting the occasional tweet. Plus I’m also following NASA, Chris Anderson (Wired/TED), one of my progeny, and a friend who just tweets funny stuff. My Twitter name is iideacocarl. My tweets are every bit as inane as my longer posts, but mercifully shorter. You have been warned.