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August 30, 2005

Who's Running This Body, Anyhow?

On the opinion pages of this morning's Seattle Post-Intelligencer, University of Washington psychology professor David P. Barash writes a "guest column" on some of the tricks various biological parasites play on their hosts. Through various mechanisms, up to and including rewiring of the host's brain, parasites manipulate their hosts to behave in ways that are beneficial to the parasite, but often not to the host. Take a look for a bit of an eye-opener.

He comments briefly on the analogies one could draw from this to the current political situation, but I would never do that myself. Never.

August 28, 2005

Cool or freaky? You decide...

The puzzle design

Like a lot of people, I've always been amused and intrigued by optical illusions, but a recent posting on Boing Boing really got to me. If you click on the small image to the right, a larger copy will appear in a separate window. Focus on the small plus-sign in the middle of the picture, paying attention to the fuzzy dots around it, but not looking directly at them. What do you notice?

Most folks almost immediately see that there's a fuzzy green dot moving around and around, even though there's actually no green in the animation at all. Okay, that's pretty weird, sure, but not too earth-shattering.

Much weirder is what most folks see next, or rather what they stop seeing: after about five seconds of staring at the little plus-sign, the fuzzy purple dots disappear completely, leaving just the grey background and the (nonexistent) green dot going around and around, all by itself. This completely did me in. I instantly wandered all over the nearby offices, looking for people to come confirm my experience.

On one site (Boing Boing's source for the image) this is claimed to be an example of a phenomenon called motion-induced blindness, which is certainly a cool and strange thing in its own right. But Michael Bach’s page on this one attributes it more believably to something much simpler, called Troxler fading. Whatever the explanation, it's certainly pretty cool. Or freaky.

By the way, if you have any interest in this sort of thing, you owe it to yourself to spend some time on Michael Bach’s really excellent Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena site. This is a great large collection of visual illusions, each with detailed explanations reflecting the best current understanding of the human visual system. In many cases, Michael also provides a little Flash applet to let you play around with various parameters of the illusion. It's great fun, and the explanations are remarkably accessible to the layman.

August 23, 2005

My new puzzle

My new puzzle

After collecting some 90 new puzzles in the IPP 25 puzzle exchange, and maybe another dozen at the puzzle party the next day, you'd think I'd be pretty well saturated with puzzles to play with, and that's true. So what makes this one (additional) new puzzle so cool? Well, there's a story behind that.

Six years ago, I attended my first ever International Puzzle Party, at a hotel near Heathrow Airport in London. (How I finally found out about, and got invited to, IPP is another story.) One of the several great organized excursions that year was a trip to the country manor home of Edward Hordern, who at the time had one of the two or three largest puzzle collections in the world. (Sadly, Edward died less than a year later. Now, the annual puzzle exchange is named in his honor.)

Edward's home, Cane End, was very large and he'd arranged for a huge tent to be set up in the "front yard" to house the tables for lunch and other activities. On each table, there were a few items from his vast collection of something like 25,000 puzzles. A copy of the puzzle shown in the picture, made from water-jet-cut Baltic birch plywood, was one of those. Given the materials and workmanship, it was probably from one of the Finnish contingent.

I couldn't solve it in the brief time I had with it there, so I jotted down the design on the back of a deposit slip from my checkbook, and it sat like that in my wallet for six years. A few months ago, I finally got around to transferring the design into Visio, in preparation for getting it laser cut by my local neighborhood sign maker, but never actually got it done.

Last weekend, at Foo Camp, the folks from Squid Labs had brought both a cutter and some 1/4" Lucite, and they announced Saturday night that they'd be cutting or etching whatever people wanted. I had my laptop with me, and the design was all ready to go, so how could I resist? It was pretty cool watching it do the cutting, seeing a sheet of plastic turn into an interesting puzzle in just a few minutes. Very cool.

The puzzle design

I don't know who originally designed this puzzle. If, by chance, you do, please let me know so I can thank them myself. Happily, it turns out to be quite a nice little puzzle.

In case you're interested, my copy of the design appears to the left. The smallest feature size should be equal to the thickness of the material you're using. In my case, it's 1/4" of an inch, which was the thickest acrylic the Squid Labs folks had at the time. For those of you with Microsoft Visio, here's the original design file.

Update on 8/31: More copies of the design file, in DXF format and DWG format. You're welcome, Andy.

August 21, 2005

What I Did at (Foo) Camp Last Weekend

Three or four years ago, the folks at the O'Reilly publishing company finally moved into their brand new buildings in Sebastopol, California, after six years of planning and waiting. Very shortly thereafter, they were forced to lay off many of their employees in response to the Great Tech Bust.


This left O'Reilly with a lot of unexpectedly empty space in their buildings, so they decided to bring together a bunch of their collective friends for an unusual kind of self-organizing conference, to be called Foo Camp (FOO = Friends Of O'Reilly). The 150 or so folks there had such a good time that Tim O'Reilly and his team decided to make it an annual tradition, each year inviting some folks who'd been there before and a bunch of others who were new. This year I was privileged to be invited to Foo Camp, and it was held this last weekend.

I flew down to Oakland on Friday afternoon and then drove a rental car up to Sebastopol, arriving just in time for dinner and really having very little idea what to expect. After picking up my badge, getting my picture taken, filling out a little biographical form ("What do you build? What is your favorite tool?"), and receiving my camp swag (a t-shirt and a soft flying disk), I shlepped my little suitcase upstairs to stake out a camping spot.

Yes, the "camp" in "Foo Camp" is literal. Almost all of the attendees camp out, like in sleeping bags, either in tents out on the back lawn or in one or another unoccupied areas of one of the two O'Reilly buildings. I opted for one corner of a big room inside. I didn't bring camping supplies with me on the flight from Seattle, but various O'Reilly folks had sleeping bags, foam pads, and pillows available for loan there in the building.

After dinner that night, Tim gathered everybody in a big room and did the intro thing. After retelling the Foo Camp origin myth (related as best I can remember above), he orchestrated the only kind of everybody-introduce-yourself ritual that could possibly scale to a group of this size: each person got to stand up and say (a) their name, (b) their employer, if any, and (c) no more than three words of bio, introduction, interests, and whatever. Those who exceeded the three-word limit were gonged. (Tim has a really nice, loud, gong for this purpose.) Some people tried to sum up their professional interests in three words, others made it a joke, and some went in quite unique directions (e.g., "baby due tomorrow", which yielded many cries of "go home!"). I ended up going for serious, and kind of slimed my way under the limit with a hyphen: "model-based data collaboration".

After that, we collectively built the schedule of conference sessions. Sara Winge and her team, from O'Reilly, brought out three large foam-core boards covered with a blank session calendar, broken out into a total of about 140 one-hour slots covering Friday night, all day and night Saturday, and Sunday morning. That left plenty of room for nearly everyone to offer a session on something, sometime. Sara tossed a half-dozen marker pens into the audience and quickly stepped out of the way as the crazy, chaotic zoo you'd expect then erupted.

That pretty much marked the end of centrally organized activities for the weekend. Everything else was generated, in advance or otherwise, by the participants. And there was a lot of "everything else".

I attended a session on "Fab @ Home", a visionary Cornell research project to extend existing solid freeform fabrication technology to make a kitchen-friendly machine that can make pretty much anything.

I got to ride a Segway for the first time, using one of several different models (and several homebrew knock-offs) brought to the camp.

One fellow brought a compressed-air-powered, rapid-fire marshmallow gun (seen as the white pipes at left in this shot). Five minutes to load, five seconds to discharge, lots of marshmallows all over the grass.

As you might expect, there were many well-known industry luminaries attending, such as Jeff Bezos, Esther Dyson, Mitch Kapor, Ward Cunningham, Brewster Kahle, Guido van Rossum, and Howard Rheingold.

But there were also many talented and accomplished people who should be far better known than they are, such as playful performance artist Jane McGonigal, Second Life technologist Cory Ondrejka, and Flickr co-founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield. I expect to be writing more about all of these folks in future entries.

I've attended many informal conferences that are essentially just gatherings of a wide range of talented and creative hacker-types, including the Asilomar Microcomputer Conference and several years of the Hackers Conference, but none of them offered the stimulation and excitement I felt at Foo Camp. It truly lives up to the almost mystical hype that surrounds it. I hope Tim invites me back again next year.

August 14, 2005

Fun with Statistics

Langley, WA

Seen in Langley, WA.

August 11, 2005

A Very Specialized Website

Easily the most popular entry I've ever made on this blog concerned a very curious Japanese method for folding T-shirts; aside from the RSS feeds and the blog home page, that entry gets more hits than any other page. Further, it accounts for almost 50% of all search-engine queries that lead people to my site.

Clearly, there's a lot of interest in how to fold T-shirts quickly. Who knew?

Now, at what we must hope is the pinnacle of this phenomenon, we have a web site entirely dedicated to the only known video footage of the T-shirt origami technique. Folks, that's all she wrote: as far as I can tell, there's only the one page on that site, and that's the only purpose of that page: to show that video.


(Thanks to Cecilia's Blog, from Piled Higher and Deeper, for the pointer.)

August 10, 2005

More Scandinavian Berries

Norwegian raspberries

When we started our trip to Finland and Norway, all we knew about Scandinavian berries was that we wanted some cloudberry liqueur. We began to get an inkling of what else might be available as we walked around the wonderful open-air market in Helsinki. Past all of the crafts and tchotchkes, every day there were many big booths selling all manner of produce, and the tables were piled high with strawberries, raspberries, cloudberries, blackberries, and cherries. We'd come at the right time. We sampled some of the strawberries there, and they were quite lovely, if a bit small.

It wasn't until we reached the open-air market in Bergen, though, that we discovered just how good berries could get in Scandinavia. The basket of raspberries artfully displayed in Kathleen's hand was a revelation. These berries are huge. These are not the thumbnail-sized raspberries of home, these are the size of the whole first knuckle of my thumb, easily twice the heft of what we were used to. And they didn't just look good, they were sweet and flavorful, with just the right touch of tartness that we expect from good raspberries.

Later, on the first excursion from our Norwegian coastal cruise, we took a long bus tour out of Geiranger. Along the way, while waiting for a ferry, the daughters of a farmer were walking among us with big flats of raspberry baskets, and we indulged again, wolfing down all of the nice big beauties before we reached the far side of the fjord.

It turned out that the tour company had a deal with the farmers: each day, they called the farmers to let them know how many buses would be coming through, and when, to let the farmers arrange to be there waiting for us. I don't know what the tour company got out of it, other than the satisfaction of customers like us.

Pursuant to that plan, at a later stop on that tour, there were more daughters of farmers, this time selling baskets of strawberries. Now, the raspberries were enormous, and certainly tasty, but that was nothing as compared to these strawberries. They were of normal size, but truly unbelievable flavor. Oh my god, they were good. So good, that as we worked out way through the basket purchased by a British couple we'd befriended, I swear, every single time somebody started on a new berry, they moaned audibly. They'd forgotten, since the previous berry, just how mind-blowingly marvelous these strawberries were. I could have cried when the last berry was gone. (The daughters, having quickly sold out, were also gone by then.)

Let this be a lesson to you, should you find yourself traveling in midsummer in Norway (and probably Sweden and Finland, too): missing out on the berries is tantamount to missing out on juicy little missives from heaven.

(Oh man, now I really wish I had another basket of those strawberries! This must be how Lucifer felt after the Fall...)

August 06, 2005

Remembering the Bomb

Today is the 60th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, so it seems an apt time to offer this review of a book that I read only very recently, and purely by coincidence.

Very shortly after the bomb was dropped, journalist (and later, novelist) John Hersey went to Hiroshima on a commission from The New Yorker and spoke in depth with some of the survivors about their own experiences of that awful day and its aftermath. When he returned to the States, he wrote a 31,000-word article that was published in the August 31, 1946 edition of The New Yorker; no other articles and no cartoons appeared in that issue. (Steve Rothman has written an excellent paper on the effects of the publication of that article.) Soon afterwards, the article was republished as the book, Hiroshima. Forty years later, Hersey returned to Japan and spoke again with those of the same survivors who were still living. The material from that second visit was published as an added chapter in a new edition of the book.

The great strength and impact of this book comes from its completely personal approach. Hersey documents the event entirely through the eyes of his six survivor informants: a personnel clerk, a tailor's widow, two doctors, a German Jesuit priest, and a Methodist pastor. From their awakenings on the fateful day, through their survival of the blast itself, and into their experiences of the following days and weeks, this is always a deeply personal story. We are never given the chance to stand aloof from the human side of this event, considering the greater political or military motivations, or amazed by tidy statistics about kilo-tonnage or blast radius. Hersey always pulls us back down into these people's confusion, suffering, and quiet heroism. It was a very powerful document when it appeared in 1946, the first look most Americans had then at the very local impact of the bomb, and it retains its ability to move us to this day.

I picked up my copy of Hiroshima by happenstance, at a used book store in Seattle. If you live near me, I'd be happy to loan it to you; if not, I urge you to pick up a copy or borrow it from your library. It's an important story for all of us, never to be forgotten.

A Cloudberry Love Story

Many years ago, some friends of ours who travelled frequently to Scandinavia brought back a delicacy and invited us to share it with them. It was a liqueur made from a fruit we'd never heard of, but that was common in those Northern latitudes, called "cloudberries". We were told stories of neighbor fighting neighbor in the far North over whose berry bushes were whose, and whether or not someone had been taking cloudberries to which they were not entitled. These berries, it was said, were so wonderful, that neither they nor any product made from them was ever exported.

It all sounded a bit unlikely, but then we tasted the liqueur, called "lakka", the Finnish name for the berry. Served ice-cold, it's a marvel on the tongue, sweet like most liqueurs, but also just a bit tart, with lovely strong fruit flavor. We immediately decided that, somehow, we had to get ourselves some of this stuff. But how, without flying halfway around the world?

In those ancient, musty, and primitive days, well before the invention of the web, when one spoke about "the Net", it meant the newsgroups, now almost forgotten bulletin boards on nearly every topic imaginable, with contributions from people all over the (connected) globe. Like most other techies, I read many of these groups regularly, and this gave me an idea about how to attack "the cloudberry problem".

I started watching closely the email addresses of newsgroup contributors, looking for one ending in ".fi", indicating Finland. There were more Finns connected in those days than any other European group other than the British, so it didn't take long to find a posting, in English, from some Finnish fellow. I wrote him a message directly, noting that he didn't know me, but explaining our recent cloudberry experiences and desires. Could he, I asked, receive some money from us, buy some cloudberry liqueur with it, and then mail it to us? Ah, said he, how wonderful! A foreigner with an appreciation of fine Finnish liqueur! But, he was sad to report, it's illegal to send spirits through the mail in Finland. So sorry. But then, he went on to ask, where in the United States did I live? Because he was planning a business trip in another month or so, to a town called Foster City, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Was I near there, by chance?

What luck! At the time, of course, we lived only ten miles or so from Foster City. Sure enough, a month and a half later, I met him in his hotel room there and received three bottles of genuine Finnish cloudberry liqueur, all of different brands, so that we could taste them all in comparison. And to top this marvelous bounty, he refused my payment for the same, saying it was his pleasure to unite an aficionado with some of the best goods that Finland had to offer.

Well, that was about 15 years ago, so naturally we long ago exhausted our supply of Finnish nectar. While in Helsinki a week and a half ago, of course, we replenished our supply; this time, we have four bottles of different brands and we look forward to many pleasant tastings in the years to come.

August 05, 2005

Back Online, in Kirkenes, Norway

Kathleen and I spent the last week living in cabin 644 onboard the M/S Richard With (pronounced here as "RIKard VIT"), with the advertised lack of network connectivity. I'll be posting more on the cruise experience later, along with many photos.

We arrived at Kirkenes, the northern terminus of the coastal steamer route yesterday morning, just in time for our last organized excursion, a riverboat trip to the Russian border (see photos). It was a truly beautiful day to be on the water.

We then got a ride from the riverboat owner to our hotel to settle in for a day here. We're staying in a hotel in the old European tradition; for one thing, that means that there's no elevator up to our room on the third floor. But Mette, the innkeeper, was quick to point out, they did have a small luggage lift, so we wouldn't have to carry our heavy bags up the stairs. Unfortunately, our new primary bags are too long to fit in that lift lying down. At the urging of our hostess, we pushed Kathleen's bag in all the way to the back and then lifted up the near end, which allowed the bag to fit entirely within the bounding box of the lift compartment. To keep it there, we stuffed our smaller new bag under the near end, pulled the lift doors closed, and hit the button for the third floor.

Obviously, I wouldn't be telling this story if all had gone well from there, and indeed it did not. As the lift went up, we heard an odd kind of clunking noise, and when I went up to the third floor, I couldn't open the lift doors there. Nor could we open the doors on the first or second floor. The lift was apparently stuck somewhere in the middle.

Unlike the people-carrying elevators we're used to, this baggage lift didn't have separate interior and exterior doors; the baggage compartment is completely open to the inner surface of the lift shaft, struts, door mechanisms, irregular walls, and all. As the lift, well, lifted, the handle on the top of Kathleen's big bag caught on one of the horizonal shaft struts. The lift kept going up, though, pulling down the top of the bag like a lever, using the smaller bag as a fulcrum. This was a tight squeeze, of course, but the lift motor was up to the challenge. It finally became stuck with the big bag completely vertical, upside down, jammed against the shaft wall, its handle still holding onto the strut, halfway between the first and second floors. The gypsum wallboard above the first-floor lift door was cracked and bulging a bit. Oh dear.

I could go on (as you know), but suffice it to say that it took Mette the innkeeper, her husband Stein, an assistant, and I a couple of hours to climb into the shaft, chip away gypsum board, hand turn the lift pulley, and generally get bruised, sweaty, and tired before finally freeing the bag from the strut, using just my fingers around the lift edge to manipulate the 50-pound bag into a new position, and lower the lift, millimeter by millimeter back down to the first floor. Miraculously, the bag eventually emerged infused with gypsum powder but otherwise essentially intact and undamaged.

We all found this a real bonding experience, so much so that we ended up having drinks after dinner with Mette and Stein, and we're off soon to visit their house and see their collection of tavern puzzles (!).

Travel is broadening, eh?