Thursday, March 11, 2010

This blog has moved

This blog is now located at
You will be automatically redirected in 15 seconds, or you may click here.

For feed subscribers, please update your feed subscriptions to

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Unsual Visitor

I was surprised this morning by a large blur overhead and a great commotion in some low trees. When I went to investigate, I found this lovely creature hunting squirrels that were hiding on an ivy-covered building.

A surprise guest, much less interested in me than I was in him (or her).

Does anyone know precisely what sort of hawk this is?


Monday, September 21, 2009

Ideological Victim

Honesty is the first casualty in the pursuit of "Truth".

Labels: ,

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Second Maxim

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end."

— Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 31, 2009

On Love

The hallmark of love is the desire of the lover to sacrifice something they would otherwise want, for the benefit of the beloved, and to consider themselves better off on account of it.

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Taxpayer-funded Playground

I spend a lot of time on various government websites. NASA, USGS and NOAA, for example, have provided me with hours of opportunity to learn the esoteric and fascinating things we've paid for with our tax dollars. Nothing prepared me, though, for something what I ran across today.

This site could easily absorb every hour in the day for an indefinite period of time. It has tools and datasets from the DoD to the CDC to the USGS all in one place! Hundreds of thousands of images, web widgets, charts, graphs... It's exhausting in extent. If you like data, lots and lots of data, take a look.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On Being Human

It is the duty of every person to use their particular confluence of nature and nurture, for the benefit of themselves and of those around them, and to bring mercy and justice into the world, which only human beings can do.

Labels: ,

Monday, July 27, 2009

Periodic Table of Videos

Just a pointer to a really great website with a really great concept: the Periodic Table of the Elements with a video for each one. The videos range from narratives to demonstrations, and are all interesting and a lot of fun.

Warning! Dangerous(ly fun) Chemicals!

The site is great for kids or adults. Just be sure you set aside some time before visiting because you won't want to stop watching.

Labels: , , ,

Tools for the Road

This blog's tagline is "tools, things and ideas". When I started writing it, as an exercise in putting my thoughts into essay form, I reached into my pocket and pulled out what I carry around. I wrote about those things as a start. Since then, I have written much more about ideas than tools and so I am trying to make up for that a bit.

Years in the making, the "kit".

My on-the-go tool kit is designed for general adjustment and repair of whatever I might encounter while out and about, as well as working on small things on the bench. It includes drivers, pliers, tweezers, probes, saws and visual aids and chemicals (such as adhesives and thread locker) all in a compact form.

If you click on the link under the picture, you can expand each of the four images into a larger and more satisfying size. You can probably identify quite a few of the items, but not all of them. The screwdriver set is a trusty Wiha roll kit, no longer made so far as I can tell. It is about 20 years old now, and is still my favorite. Wiha tools are very high quality and I have several of their screwdriver sets. I highly recommend them. In the roll are also a pair of excellent Swiss Erem tweezers*, and a "probe" I fabricated from a dental pick which serves many purposes included lock-pick and CD drawer ejector.

I am going to leave the other tools for later posts as I could write a few thousand words on what is in that kit and that's not a task for now. If you have any questions about the items in the photos, please use the address at the top of the blog sidebar and email me about it.

* If you need some tweezers like them, check DealExtreme, but give yourself plenty of time because you won't be able to stop clicking.


A Real Multitool for the Pocket

This Father's Day my family gave me a great gift, a Skeletool. The Skeletool is the visually confusing next-generation multitool from Leatherman.

"Ooo... what is it? I mean, how do you open it?"

I already owned a Leatherman Wave and like it as much as I can like any multitool (which is limited, since they are never quite right). But the Wave is big and heavy and is definitely not comfortable in the pocket. The sheath has a nice horizontal carry option but it is still a burden and frankly rather geeky for EDC (Every Day Carry).

Enter Skeletool. Here's a minimalist multitool: knife, screwdriver(s), pliers, cutters (hard and soft wire), and the very important bottle opener which doubles as a 'biner to clip the tool to a convenient loop. (Or maybe the carabiner is the doubling as a bottle opener, this may remain an eternal debate...) In any case, here's a tool with the essentials that weighs in about about five ounces, is geek-sexy as all get out, and made very nicely. It's belt clip holds it nicely in the pocket, and while it is decidedly thicker and heavier than my 3" single-bladed folder, it is also has decidedly more utility.

The blade is beefy, and has a nice profile that provides a working point and a tip that works very well for things like package opening, and a broad body that does well on cutting line and straps. The screwdriver uses Leatherman's machined down 1/4 hex bits and offers two choices (two phillips and two straight edge) with spare bit storage in the handle that works well. The pliers/cutters benefit from the lessons Leatherman has learned from previous versions and feature a strong box joint and excellent fit and finish. The bottle opener works reasonably well, and the carabiner clip retains the cap, whether by serendipity or design I don't know.

So, bottom line, if you want a pocket-sized multitool that is eminently carry-able while providing genuine utility, take a look at a Skeletool. The price is reasonable for the quality, or, you can have six kids and wait a few years until they buy you one.

Labels: ,

On the Universal Rôle of Mythology

When we read Plato's stories of the life of Socrates, it is very easy for us to spot the mythology involved. Plato's Socrates is a pious devotee of Athena, the goddess of war and of wisdom. It is central to his understanding of what is ethical, and ultimately he chooses death as more acceptable than leaving Athens, Athena's city.

Greek Athena, a Copy Signed by ANTIOCHOS as she Appeared on the Acropolis

For us, it is self-evident that Socrates is being superstitious, that Athena is purely mythological—that is to say not real. We are inclined to say, "Why should Socrates die for such nonsense?" Yet, I can't help but wonder that if the tables were turned and Socrates were reading an account of one of our lives what he would spot, without hesitation, as mythological, and wonder at.

Look in a dictionary for a definition of mythology, and you will find something like:

mythology |məˈθäləjē|
noun ( pl. -gies)

1. a collection of myths, esp. one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition.
• a set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, esp. when exaggerated or fictitious.

2. the study of myths.

I want to extend this definition to uncover the essential and universal rôle of mythology in every person's world view. I assert that each and every one of us has a mythology which is the very foundation of our understanding. It serves the purpose of allowing us to sift the infinite number of facts that bombard us each day. Without a mythology, ordinary thinking would be an infinite regress of questioning, practical decision-making would be impossible.

My definition of mythology is "a set of unquestioned and even unquestionable beliefs which form the foundation of practical reasoning about the world and are both influenced by and give rise to a set of stories which both evolve and bolster those self-evident truths."

That is, my mythology, and yours, and every single persons consists of those things which we do not question, and even things which we cannot question as they lie outside of our awareness while still influencing us. When someone says, "the facts speak for themselves", they are relying on a mythology to provide the framework. The facts never speak for themselves, they can't. Facts are not arguments, they must have a logical framework to provide the meaning that is so self-evident to the speaker.

People almost never realize that self-evident things are not proven. In their minds, self-evident things are given the same weight as the proofs which arise from the assumptions they make. That is to say, a valid logical inference is not necessarily "true". The logical inference: "all men have two brains, Plato was a man, therefore Plato had two brains" is valid but false. If we agreed that all men have two brains, and that Plato was a man, it would not only be valid but true. Logical inferences inherit they truthfulness from the assertions of fact of which they are composed.

In the case of "the facts speak for themselves", the person asserting this invites us to plug a fact into a preëxisting framework that provide the "all men have two brains" part. "Plato was a man, the fact speaks for itself, he had two brains." In this case, the speaker may or may not be aware that there is a question of the two-brainedness of men. She may well have no idea why the "facts speak for themselves". This is the nature of mythology. The other guy has the mythology, we have the Truth.

Mythologies, though, are not necessarily falsehoods. Their merit does not lie in the strict factuality of their construction but in the unspeakable (that is, beyond simple words) foundation which they provide for moral, ethical and epistemic reasoning. Mythologies offer a way to weave essential messages about the world into all of our thinking. They are complex and very large in extent. They are evolving (in most cases, or they die). They do not inherently suggest a particular ideological result, nor are differing mythologies necessarily mutually exclusive. However, when two people have different mythologies, communication is very difficult.

Mythology, being pervasive and essentially foundational, creates a vocabulary for its adherents. Words like: "ethical", "moral", "right", "freedom", "oppression" and countless others are tied intimately to the mythologies that give rise to them. The dictionary is no help in this case, since there is no authority except the mythology for the "meaning" of these words.

Mythology, then, is not a bad or false thing. The stories that make up a mythology are generally exempla, fables, allegories. They are intended to instruct and bolster a complex interleaving of ideas. They needn't be factual to be useful.

When people mistake exempla for factual reporting, and mistake mythologies for proven 'truths" we get various types of orthodoxies, and we get wars and prejudice and pointless hatred. I am willing to let my friend have a mythology that varies from my own. I want to learn from him about the hidden assumptions of my own mythology. He has an ability to see what I take as self-evident as possibly wrong and that is a precious thing.

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 24, 2009

Why bother?

My friend Robert asked me "What is the value of pursuing philosophy?" I answered him:
The value of the pursuit of answers to epistemic questions lies in the space beyond the limits of speech and before the limits of thought.

I couldn't really say more without lying.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I am a Key Signing Iconoclast*

PGP keys are a way to digitally sign and/or encrypt data such as email, source code, documents and the like. They use a public key system whereby I provide you with a key that you can use to verify a "signature", or in combination with another to decrypt the encrypted data.

Here's a key, it doesn't really have anything to do with this essay.

The signature works because you get my key from a trusted source (me) or because other trusted people have used their own key to sign mine. This is called a web of trust. To make a key "trustable" it has to be signed by a person that is trusted. This can be you, if you've received my key in a way that leads you to believe it is really my key, or someone that you explicitly (or implicitly) trust to verify the veracity of the source.

To this end people are very careful about signing keys. They, in general, will only do it in person, with supporting documentation such as a passport or a driver's license, or both! They take it all very seriously to ensure that the web of trust has value. I agree with this motivation whole-heartedly.

On the other hand, I have decided that in spite of the excellent motivation this key signing orthodoxy has damaged the value of the keys, and because it is, at this point, just an orthodoxy (and not a rational process), has excluded an entirely legitimate domain for PGP keys (quite possibility the most legitimate one).

Keys have a name and one or more uid entries. The uids are email addresses. So the identity to which this key refers is the combination of a moniker and an address. The name, according to the orthodoxy, must appear on some sort of identification document with a photograph, preferably more than one of these. Such documents cannot verify the address, though, and may not even be the name used by the key holder in correspondence. So what is going on here?

The pious signer is using a method which has a very stark appearance of rigor in righteous defense of the web of trust. Here the motivation is excellent but the practice is outright silly. In most if not virtually all cases does not verify the address included in the key with any special rigor. It is, after all the pair that matters and the extra emphasis on the legal name of the person serves no good purpose. If, as is the case with most folks, your concern is that signed email, documents, and the like come from the person you expect is the key owner, why be concerned with the legal name at all?

My own key, the one I most care about asserts only "Yaakov". This is my identity. It is much more real than anything the government would have to say about me. Combined with my email address, it is uniquely me. I am consistently "Yaakov". You, reader, know me as Yaakov. My key is saying "I am Yaakov who corresponds from a certain email address". A signer is saying "I affirm that this key is telling the truth." My key claims nothing about any passports or licenses I might hold. It says, "I am the person you know." So, if I sign my email to you, you will know that it is, in fact, from me. What does this have to do with government paperwork? Why nothing of course.

So if you know me, and you would like to sign my key, or if you agree with me, and you would be willing to use an email exchange and/or other peer-to-peer confirmation of my Yaakov identity, email me at the address at the top of the sidebar and we can convince each other that we are each other in some way that has to do with how we actually use these keys. I am happy to be an iconoclast and remind people what signing should mean. There is no singular method for saying "I am convinced that the holder of this key is, in fact, the person I know it to represent." And so far as I am concerned, the current method, in the face of actual use of the keys, is just not very useful.

*iconoclast |īˈkänəˌklast| noun 1. a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions. It comes from the Byzantine Empire where some folks (including the odd empreror) felt that "icons", fancy painted panels which figured in the Eastern Orthodox Church's ritual were right out, being biblically prohibited as "graven images". They broke (-clast from the Greek "klan", "to break") the panels to show their disapproval.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, July 03, 2009

Why StumbleUpon Visitors are Not Welcome

Recently I began to notice StumbleUpon as a referrer in the logs for this blog. I had seen it before, but that was to a specific post, and I had no problem tracking down the recommendation someone had made on the site. This time, though, the link was to the front page, and try as I might I could not find such recommendation on the StumbleUpon pages. The referrer link itself was no help since it is just a pointer to a marketing page trying to get me to advertise with them.

A friend mentioned that he recalled a button in the StumbleUpon "toolbar" (really an outer frame) to randomly choose a site. This idea also seemed to explain why many times only some of the images are downloaded (the visitor simply clicked on "stumble" again when the first impression wasn't appealing). So it seems, that this it the source of my StumbleUpon visitors. They are people randomly hopping around the web hoping to find something "interesting".

At first I was basically neutral about this but as I saw more and more such visitors I found I was beginning to feel irked. I write this blog for myself and for people who share an interest in the type of things I think and write about. I don't do anything to "drive traffic" here. I have no interest in increasing the readership. I certainly find satisfaction that my 300 or so subscribers enjoy my writing enough to be subscribers. I am very happy when a post here is publicized on some other site and people visit to read it. Some folks stay around and read more, some even subscribe so they can keep up to date. This is all very nice.

But, I perceive an essential difference between people choosing to read something that looks interesting to them and people randomly "stumbling" in here hoping that I will entertain them. The aren't friends, they aren't like-minded, they are just people filling my logs and using my bandwidth. Even when someone happens upon this blog because of a search engine result that is tangentially related to the content, they at least have a semantic connection to my writing. The aren't just seeking random entertainment. They are pursuing some vector of ideas on which my writing lies.

I didn't ask StumbleUpon to send you here, nor did you. I don't write this blog for you. I am not selling anything, and your stumbling isn't any value to me. You are not welcome here because you didn't intend to come here.

Labels: ,

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Google Maps Hates UC Santa Barbara

I don't know why but it appears the Google is trying to keep people from getting to UC Santa Barbara, at least people from Torrance. Has Google finally begun to use their hegemony for evil?

You'll need this...

Read the "driving" directions carefully. I'd still like to know the real explanation.

(Part of the explanation is that there is a Santa Barbara in NZ, but this seems like an amateurish joke-gone-bad thing I wouldn't expect from Google. The query is reasonable.)

(screen shot here in case they've "fixed" it.)

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 23, 2009

No Comment

Today I checked my Windows Live Mail account (the new name, or co-name, for Hotmail), which I use for Microsoft beta programs and other MS-related things. I found this message waiting:

Dear Windows Live User,

We are contacting you regarding your communication preference settings for Windows Live and MSN.

Currently, your settings do not allow Microsoft to send you promotional information or survey invitations about Windows Live and MSN. We would like to communicate important product updates to you, so if you would like to change your settings, please visit your account profile here to change your preferences.

The Windows Live Team

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What Does It All MEAN?

(Note: As a textual convention I will write terms I mean in a technical, narrow, non-portable sense in ALL CAPS. It is my intention to provide the entire meaning that I intend those words to have in my text. They don't necessarily have any relationship to the same words used in other contexts, though they might.)

MEANING is the product of CONTENT (facts) and CONTEXT (assumptions). MEANING is what we "get" from words and experiences that we can in turn communicate as words and experiences. MEANING is inherently contextual. It requires some set of assumptions, some axiomatic foundation upon which to rest, 0r, alternatively, to act as a filter for the infinite facts that one can collect about anything.

MEANING, then, is a matter of opinion. It is a matter of agreement on the facts of the case, and of the assumptions used to interpret them. When we attempt to determine what something MEANS, we set the facts in the context that we find self-evidently TRUE. What is TRUTH? TRUTH is simply agreement with some standard, and in the case of CONTEXT, TRUTH is self-evident. Not rational, not logical, not defensible except as being self-evident.

So, if MEANING requires, CONTEXT, and context requires TRUTH (of the self-evident variety) we find that MEANING is really a matter of opinion, with which one may legitimately agree or disagree, and which is also multifaceted. That is, we can disagree on meaning and both be "right".

MEANING then is not "objective" in any sense that people ordinarily MEAN when they use "objective" in discussing epistemology. It is subjective, it requires arbitrary choices of axiomatic principles. If this is the case, there can be no objective MEANING. To put it a different way, if there is something objective, it is MEANINGLESS.

MEANINGLESS but not worthless. MEANING it turns out, it is a chimera of language. We have a very strong belief that things must have MEANING to be important or accessible. It seems, though, that the experience of objectivity, if there is one, must lie outside language and its insoluble bond with MEANING.

Shuzan's Short Staff

Shuzan held out his short staff and said: "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality.
If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?"

Mumon's comment:

If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality.
If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact.
It cannot be expressed with words
and it cannot be expressed without words.
Now say quickly what it is.

Holding out the short staff,
He gave an order of life or death.
Positive and negative interwoven,
Even Buddhas and patriarchs
cannot escape this attack.

Labels: ,

The Best Use for Java

In theory, I like Java. Strongly object oriented and platform agnostic, I want to like it. Unfortunately, I don't. Almost* every application I have used written in Java is quirky, bloated and has an unpleasant interface. But, there is one use of Java that I have always applauded: web-based applications for scientific visualization.

Visualizing a ripple tank, animated and fully interactive fascination

Java turns out to be a great way to provide simulations on web pages, and there are quite a few very nice ones out there. Recently, a colleague asked me about antenna radiation visualization software and in the process of researching the question I stumbled into a veritable treasure trove of just the kind of Java applet I appreciate.

Paul Falstad in a fit of prolificacy has produced an impressive menu of math and physics visualization applets and put them on the web for all of us to mesmerize ourselves with. They are very well done, and offer interaction and both 2- and 3-dimensional views. Warning: You might want to be sure you don't have anything important to to do for a while before you visit that link.

* Cyberduck, the very nice OS X FTP/SFTP client was written in Java but used the Cocoa API to make it indistinguishable from a native OS X application. Cyberduck lives on here but I don't think it uses Java any more. However it is really spiffy and worth checking out as it has grown many new abilities.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, January 30, 2009


I am a person that needs a home on the Internet. That is, a place I can call my own, a place where I have root. This has been the case since about 1995, when I registered my first domain. I went from home to home since then, relying on associates and friends to provide data centers or machines. There was always some quid pro quo, but it was never in the form of hard cash.

Then, about ten months ago, my home was gone. My living arrangements changed very suddenly and I was homeless, out on the Internet street. I needed to do something and it looked like actually paying for hosting was going to be necessary. I was at a loss.

My new high rise Internet Apartment

I looked at "managed hosting" options and found them surprisingly cheap, which was encouraging. Then I looked again and found them very limited which was disappointing. For me it just isn't home when there are rooms in the house to which I don't have the keys.

So, clearly I needed "unmanaged hosting" (this is an unfortunate misnomer, like "fuzzy logic", in that it implies something is lacking that is not). I turned my attention to dedicated servers, but found them to be too costly. Asking around among trusted friends I quickly discovered that one name appeared more than any other: Linode.

Linode is a brilliant enterprise offering Linux VPSs (Virtual Private Servers). A VPS is a VM (Virtual Machine) hosted on a larger, physical machine. A VPS looks, for every practical purpose like your very own host. When you "rent" a Linode they give you the master key, you get root. Linode is like an Internet Apartment, or maybe a condo, but unlike these Linode has no contract. You pay, pro rata, month to month. Move in any time, move out any time, you decide.

One of the very best things about Linode is the community. You can get much more help than is reasonable in the forums and (more importantly for me) on the #Linode IRC channel on the OFTC network []. The channel is a great place to get help with configuration and you'll even make some friends if you are so inclined.

I encourage you to consider becoming my neighbor. And, if you sign up here, I will get credit for letting you know about it and a free month's service which I will certainly appreciate.

Labels: ,

Monday, June 30, 2008

Old School Times Two

Oh how sophisticated we have become in our old age. There used to be a time when just about every web page that was hip and up-to-date had a silly "hit counter" on it. It counted the number of times the page was viewed in a very simple-minded way. It didn't care about unique hosts or anything useful like that, it just incremented its count every time the page was accessed.

Hit counter!

Well, the good old days are back! In an effort to beat the nixie tube theme to death I offer you, free to use, your very own nixie tube hit counter. It will remember any page you stick it in, it will increment every time the page is displayed (of course, actually, every time the image is displayed), and it will impress your visitors with old-timey geek power. Or not. Either way feel free to stick it on your page and have a go.

(NOTE: The program is, as I said above, simple-minded. It just looks at the referrer and bases the count on that. This means that "" and "" and "" will all have accurate but different counts. I might improve this in the future but probably not.)

To use the super-cool nixie page counter, just use it like an image, so:

<img src=""
alt="Nixie Hit Counter!" width=210 height=77>

That's all there is to it. Now there is no guarantee that it will continue to operate so don't base a business model on it, but if you think its fun and want to try it out, please do. Thoroughly tested but bug reports should go to the email address in the sidebar over there.

Happy counting!


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Absolute Confusion

A fundamental error among people looking for Truth (with a big T) is to imagine that is is a nothing but a bigger version of "truth" (the little T kind). Small truths are simply things about which we agree. We say "that is true" to mean just that. "I agree with you" or, " you should agree with me" are equivalent and work everywhere "it is true" is used. Because the same word is used we take big Truth to be a bigger version of small truth.

The reality is that small truths don't actually resemble what people imagine big Truth to be. Small truths are descriptions of things that use words we understand from their context. The entire web of meaning that leads to small truths is based on a context of assumptions. People believe that Truth is "absolute" by which they mean there is no contextual component, but we can see that small truths are entirely dependent on the context in which the occur. So, what we call "truth" cannot be the same thing as the idea of big Truth.

If there is something like big Truth it must be something other then contextless small truth. Small truths are products of this big Truth, not a different sort of the same thing. There is no occult version of Truth in them. They are just what they are, no more. The confusion arises because they share a name.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

From the Ashes (but still a bit sooty...)

Miscellany's previous home became suddenly unavailable. As you can see, it's back online but it is not yet completely status quo ante. Please excuse any funny behavior, or missing functionality as I scramble to restore things to normal.

On a positive note, I am now using Linode and I am very pleased and impressed. Low cost, slick as a Linux-geek's forehead and cheaper than his wardrobe. I can unhesitatingly recommend that you check them out, if you want to have high quality hosting and root.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Nixie Tube Fun

Your IP Address

Nixie tubes are a retro-technology well beloved by artsy nerds everywhere. My own memories of nixies are as the classiest digital displays, before being supplanted by the MAN-1 seven segment LED display. Today, nixie tubes are lovingly turned into clocks of very modern accuracy and even unlikely wristwatches.

The nixie tube was the invention of the Haydu Brothers Laboratories which was purchased by the much larger Burroughs Corporation who made it a commercial product in 1954. The name comes from the designation assigned to the "Numeric Indicator Experimental No. 1" by Burroughs who trademarked it.

Lately I don't have time to build my own clock, though I would like to. I have settled for building you a slightly useful toy. The display shows your IP address, and improbably, I knew ahead of time just how many digits I would need to display it.

Maybe I will build a clock eventually, it would be nice on my desk.


Monday, March 31, 2008

It Lives!

No, this blog is not dead.

Some folks have even expressed concern that perhaps something has "happened" to me. Rest assured, it is nothing more than life's demands overwhelming free time.

Thanks for the concern. I have several articles partially completed so look for my triumphant return soon.

As a reminder, I always enjoy receiving email, and you can find a link in the sidebar. I enjoy feedback and reactions to what I write and will always respond (if not instantly, eventually.)

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Weather Outside is Frightful

larger version here

It's been snowing around here. I don't like snow but at least it is pretty.

This photo was taken about two hours before sunrise. It is a one second exposure.


Labels: , ,

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Saw of Science

Tools are inert. Every tool must be wielded by a person. People use tools to achieve goals. The result of wielding a tool is a product of the skill and intent of the wielder, and the suitability of the tool to the task. Consider a tree saw: it can be used to destroy a tree, to kill it, or it can be used to prune a tree, cutting away deadwood and diseased limbs to strengthen it. The way in which it is to be used is up to the person wielding it. Is either way "true", or "good", in some objective sense?

What happens next depends on you.

Consider science: it is also a tool which can be used to destroy or improve, not physical objects but ideas. A person can choose to destroy an idea by cutting it off, or improve it by pruning away the bad branches. You might reply: "Science depends on truth and so it can only cut away the bad. If it cuts down the idea, the idea was bad." This isn't honest. All ideas are subject to denial. All ideas depend on assumptions which can be shown to be suspect or "wrong" given the right context. The result of wielding the saw of science is very strongly dependent on the intent of the wielder. This intent is often an a priori attempt to disprove challenging ideas. This is a terrible way to use such a powerful tool.

It seems to me that a person interested in truth should turn science on their own ideas as a skeptic. One way to do this is by attempting to find the truth in those things that are challenging. If we do this we will find and fill the gaps in our own ideas. This goes beyond science to things about which science has nothing to say as well. In our lives, as we consider the ideas of other people we know to be sincere and intelligent, it damages us if we do not consider their ideas as seriously as we consider our own. The world is vague and as much as we want to have clear lines we cannot.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Anything completely clear is wrong, or not very interesting.


Labels: , ,

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Redeeming Social Value

Now that something about 150,000 of you have visited this post, and about 19,000 of you have made links to it, perhaps I can do something to redeem all the attention paid to it. In a way loosely coupled to INSERT COIN, the campaign to save trees, through reminding people where we get paper, came to my attention.

What can be better than reminding people of what they already know?

I have modified the program (available here) to be a little friendlier and have a fixed message, "Remember... These Come From Trees". It is easy to use, you just need to give it a hostname or IP address on the command line. More information on making it work can be found in the context of the original post. For most smaller displays the message will scroll, marquee-like for a nice effect. The bigger displays may benefit from printer-specific formatting with spaces in the message string (in the quotes on line 47).

I hope this can do a bit to conserve paper. I am particularly interested in conservation as a way of improving the world. Saving energy and natural resources by not wasting them is a no-brainer. It is very clear to me that not conserving when the opportunity easily comes to hand is ethically indefensible.

Order some stickers, too, for those things that aren't HP printers.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Relatively Monstrous

Today, Shlomo (our youngest, at 6), came walking stiff-legged into the room and up to my wife.

Where did Igor get that brain?

Shlomo:  I am acting like Frankenstein. E equals M C squared.
Shoshi:   That's Einstein.
Shlomo:  Oh.

Sometimes Shlomo says things that leave us scratching our heads. I still don't know where he learned about E=MC².

Labels: ,

You Are What You Eat

Around here the squirrels can be a bit nutty. They get used to humans and lose much of their fear. This leads to odd behaviors. I have seen squirrels do this in the trees but never like this, on the ground.

In spite of appearances, the little guy did not just come from the tree

It is very hard to avoid assigning human emotions to animals. I don't know if this squirrel was really having fun but it certainly looked that way.

I like squirrels, I think I will take more photos of them.

Labels: ,

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What Do You Use?

There are hundreds of application download sites out there, but can you trust their ratings and awards? Probably not.

Luckily, if you are an OS X user, my friend Marcus has come up with a great solution for you. Combining the idea of social networking and tagging sites with software recommendations, his site here, lets the user community give the recommendations. Just like digg or, lets you use common wisdom (number of users) or choose trusted individuals for recommendations.

It is a great idea that works and deserves a lot of attention, check it out.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Two Sides of a Coin

Lately, I have been working on a heuristic for systematic thinking that I believe is very powerful. I'd like to share it with you. Maybe you can help me refine it. For a long time I have found myself alternately embracing opposing viewpoints. At first this bothered me. It seemed to be non-committal, indecisive and not useful for decision-making. However, I have come to see it as quite useful, indeed.

Tetradrachm of Athens, 5th BCE. The obverse features Athena, goddess of the city. The reverse, shows Athena's owl companion, a symbol of the city itself.  This silver coin helped make Athens a financial power due to its unusual purity and high quality minting

There's no such thing as a one-sided coin. It's a package deal.

Today I was listening to the Philosophy Bites podcast featuring Anthony Grayling, a prominent advocate of atheism. When asked about agnosticism he rejected it as a "wishy washy, fence sitting kind of view". He went on to attempt to draw a parallel between the belief in "faeries" with a belief in any supernatural phenomenon, and therefore to reject agnosticism on the basis that if faeries aren't real then it is silly to hold out for any view that isn't strictly naturalist. I mention this because it is what provoked into writing about this topic today.

When I have found some set of rules that nicely explains a given aspect of reality I also find myself invariably dissatisfied with them. There always seem to be things that I believe are correct, but that those rules cannot reach. This, I think, is related to the idea of incompleteness in mathematical logic. Kurt Gödel provided a rigorous proof that any system of formal logic, which sufficiently complex to be interesting, is incomplete. That is, there are true and false "statements" within its rules that the rules themselves cannot derive. (A note to mathematical logicians: I am not claiming this is a rigorous definition or application of Gödel, consider it loosely-coupled)

Similarly, the rules-based systems you and I use to make decisions about morality, politics, aesthetics and the like are also incomplete. There are things that we can feel are correct but cannot show as correct. This is what lead to my alternate embracing of first one idea, then the opposing one. Was that wrong?

Many of the greatest thinkers in history, particularly those with a "spiritual" bent are described as confusing the people around them by first embracing one idea, then its apparent opposite. This seems inconsistent and mysterious. Maybe it isn't. Let's take a very simplified example from politics. Our hypothetical left- and right-wingers are faced with a problem. The poor need to be fed. Excluding actual extremists, who might either suggest that everyone should be fed by the government (putative left) or that people who cannot feed themselves should be allowed to die (putative right) we are left with two sides that agree some people should be helped by the government and the some people should be completely on their own.

The difference between them is that on the left, expansion of the government program is the tendency or even goal, which on the right it is contraction of the program. Is one of these positions "correct" to the exclusion of the other? I don't think so. I also don't think that an artificial "middle" is correct, either. That is, the ideological "average" of the left and right is not an effective position. What then, can we make of this?

This is where the coin comes in. If we imagine the problem to be solved, which both sides agree upon, as the coin, we can see that the two sides of the coin can be analogous to the two positions. The coin itself is a good coin, We all like it. If we are on one face, though, we cannot see the other at all. It appears that the other face is mutually exclusive with our face. If we look at the coin, though, we see that both faces are required. So, it is my contention that when we find ourselves with what we consider a "good set of rules" we should immediately seek out the opposing view. That view is actually complementary to our own. It literally completes it. When we come to a conclusion with our own rules we then need to analyze with "their" rules and refine our conclusion.

Sometimes, it seems wise to actually adopt a opposition opinion where our own system seems deficient. Sometimes it is just a matter of polishing our own ideas. Eventually, we might stop thinking of our "side" as the "correct" one and instead embrace the entire coin. Then it becomes a matter of where to draw the line in tension between the two. In that idea I believe is the essence of how the world operates.

I will write more on that, later.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Amazing NASA Imagery

UPDATE: Another image of the Los Angeles County fires acquired 3-August-2009.

Wildfires still burning in Los Angeles County

(full size image here)

(NASA's Earth Observatory Natural Hazards page for this fire, here.)

UPDATE: NASA has a good shot of the current (30-August-2009) Los Angeles County fires. It isn't quite as spectacular as the previous images since the fire is smaller and the smoke is drifting overland, but it is news.

Wildfires burn in Los Angeles County

(full size image here)

NASA has provided satellite views of the recent Southern California wildfires. These pictures bring home both the enormity and insignificance of the fires. Compared to the land mass of the US they are small spots, but the smoke they are producing is prodigious.

Wildfires burn in California

(full size image here)

High resolution versions of other great photos available here.

Labels: , , ,

Your Shoe is Untied

How many times do you stop to ties your shoes in one day? If your answer isn't "once for each time I put on my shoes" maybe you need to know about "Granny Syndrome" ("double-knotters" I am talking to you, too.) About 20 years ago I got tired of constantly retying my shoes. They would come untied a dozen or more times a day. I decided to do something about it. I set out to invent or discover a better way to tie shoes. My discovery might just liberate you, too.

Loops that run parallel to your shoe is a sure sign of Granny Syndrome

If your laces look like this you are a sufferer. Check them, if they are still tied.

I ran across a fantastic volume called The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford Ashley. Ashley himself is a fascinating person worthy of separate discussion but his book was the key to my cure.

It turns out that Ashley has no solution at all for tying shoelaces. "Shoelaces" appears in the index but he only writes about lacing shoes. Among the literally thousands of knots documented in the book, however, is the common reef knot (also called the square knot.) The reef knot gets its name from its use. You have probably heard the expression "reef the sails". "Reefing" is rolling up a sail to some extent to reduce its effective area. When you reef a sail you have to tie it in place. The reef knot is used there. It has the property of being very secure unless you pull one of the loose ends across the knot which causes the knot to "capsize", or "spill" and come undone. You can see how this is useful on a reefed sail.

A reef knot is quite simply tied. Take a half knot (the first step most people take in shoe tying) and then take another half knot in the opposite direction on top of the first. If you take the second in the same direction, you get a granny knot which, being frictionally unbalanced, will not stay tied.

By now you may be starting to twig to the problem. It turns out that the common bow tied in a shoelace is a reef knot taken with two bights (loops in the rope) which is called a "slipped reef knot". So, very simply, if you try to tie a slipped reef knot in your shoelace and you end up with a slipped granny knot, it will come undone. So how to fix it?

Here is the secret to tying your shoes just once each time you put them on: reverse the direction of the first half knot you make. If you normally put the left over and right under, put the right over and the left under, and vice versa. Then, proceed to tie as usual. It's that simple. It will save you time, embarrassment and for some, pain. It will eliminate the ugly, dubious "double knot". Double knotting is completely unnecessary. The shoes stay tied and they look nicer.

More Information

In researching this post I ran across a site from which I got the picture, above: Ian's Shoelace Site. The site is wonderful. It covers this topic, lacing, tying (17 knots!), and many other shoelace-related areas. It is a great place for advanced shoelace studies or to see pictures of what I am talking about if you can't understand my description.

In our correspondence Ian and I agreed our independent, informal visual surveys indicate about 40% of people suffer from Granny Syndrome. Once you figure it out you might just find yourself mentioning it to friends when you spot their telltale parallel bights.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 19, 2007

I Love My Car

About a year ago I bought a new car. OK, new to me. She is about 13 years old now (yes, it is a she and her name is Inger). She is a 1995 850 Volvo Estate Turbo. I paid $4,800 cash for her and have her title.

Inger in her favorite color, red. I think she is lovely.

Her original MSRP was about $35,000. She has a full leather interior, power moon roof, CD changer, fancy climate control... lots of stuff. She is sporty, too: 222 bhp and 0-60 in 7 seconds, and passive rear wheel steering. When I drive her around, listening to say, Debussy's Estampes or Steely Dan's Aja I am happy. I have wanted a Volvo 850 Estate since 1995—now I have one.

She, like me, is a little idiosyncratic thanks to her age. But she is nice to look at and great to drive. Her quirks are just her personality and the patina of age is just character. I like to think the same of myself. Inger has 166,000 miles on her and because she is a Volvo 300,000 is not asking too much. I drive very little, about 500 miles a month. At that rate she could be the last car I own. I wonder if it will work out that way.

One of the things that makes me specially happy is that I have no car payment. I own this car free and clear. I cannot imagine taking out a car loan any more. In the past I used credit. Today I have no credit cards and no car loans. I don't own a lot of expensive items but I do really enjoy what I have. I only wish I had learned about this 20 years ago.

Labels: ,

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Learning Perl

Perl makes quick programming very easy and more elaborate things possible. It is an exceptionally flexible, easy to grow into language with an outstanding group of people using it. The Perl Community is every bit as exceptional as perl itself.

Even if you've never written a program, or if your programming experience is restricted to things like DOS batch, perl is something you can learn. If you wish you could just "hack things" when you need them, perl is a great choice.

So, how do you get started? Well, there are a lot of resources out there, some better than others. I would suggest you start with this site, which offers a nice variety of options, and that you fire up an IRC client and join us in #perl on for more interactive advice and encouragement.

I'll be looking for you.


Undoing INSERT COIN and Related Ideas


Wow. This post has seen more than 50,000 hits in less than two days (UPDATE: it has now exceeded 110,000 in three days). To say that it was unexpected is completely insufficient to describe my reaction. In any case, thanks for sharing my fun. And that's exactly what this is meant to be, fun. Not malicious, not mean-spirited, not damaging in any way. Almost all the comments I have received reflect that spirit. There are a few, however than don't make me smile (and didn't make the comments page).

Un-"hacked", and READY

First, if you came here because you were "hacked" there is an easy solution. Power-cycle your printer. That is, turn it off, wait a few seconds, turn it on. The program uses a documented, supported feature of HP's product to do something very ephemeral and undoing it is as easy as a restart.

Second, please have fun but think before you act. If it is against the culture of your office enviroment to have this sort of fun, consider not trying. You will be the only one having fun. More serious may be a violation of your company's Acceptable Use Policy which could get you in real trouble.

So, please, practice "safe hacking" and use your entire brain when choosing how to use this information.

Have fun.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Get the Weather on your HP 4200

I mentioned, here, that I wrote a program to put the weather on the HP 4200 in our office. The program uses the perl Geo::METAR module to parse METAR weather information from NOAA. You'll need to install the module if you don't already have it (and you probably don't). Install it using ActiveState's PPM for Windows and the CPAN program (or OS package manager) for everything else. You will also need to know your ICAO airport code and the IP address of your printer.

How does it know?

You can use some sort of cron job or the Windows "at" service to run it periodically. The METAR data doesn't actually change more than once an hour so more frequent updates won't buy more accuracy. This program requires a little more assembly than the earlier one but the comments in the source should be sufficient. The code itself was a 10-minute hack and is not intended to be lovely, but it has performed flawlessly for years now. The program targets the HP 4200 but it is very possible that it will work with other large display printers as well—it can certainly be modified to do so.

I like this one because it is hackish and useful at the same time.

NOTE: Windows users installing Geo::METAR via PPM may find that the temperature variables need to be edited. If you get errors you can try making them C_TEMP and F_TEMP. I haven't tracked down why this is true, but it appears to be.

Labels: ,

Using Perl with Windows

It appears that a lot of people don't have any idea how to run a perl program under Windows. Perl runs just about anywhere and Windows is no exception. The easiest way, and the way I recommend, is to download ActiveState's free Windows Perl distribution. It is very friendly with a nice installer. Once you have it installed, the program in this post will run fine.

While you are at it, download a copy of the free Komodo Edit code editor. I have been using it a lot lately and really liking it. It is responsive and has a nice feature set. Since it provides background syntax checking and tool tips with syntax it actually makes learning perl easier. It understands quite a few file formats, so it is good for more than perl.

Labels: ,



Can this silliness be used for good? Perhaps...

It is amazing how unaware some people can be. This little perl program allows you to set the "Ready Message" on HP printers to whatever you'd like. (if you want to run it under Windows, and don't know how, read this.) I wrote it after coming across the command in an HPPJL (HP Printer Job Language) reference manual I was reading for some reason that I now forget. Thanks to the flexibility and power of perl, it was a no-brainer to play with the new information. (Maybe you should consider learning perl?)

I want my ready back!

Well, of course I couldn't ignore such an opportunity, and it turns out to be a lot of fun. You can think up your own funny, confusing or scary messages. My personal favorite is "INSERT COIN" which fits perfectly on the small LCDs. You can even sit in sight of the printer and change the message while watching the reaction of your victim (or reading about it). Don't be surprised, though, if a large fraction don't even notice. I was quite surprised myself but, it appears, some people don't look at what is in front of them.

I wrote a more elaborate version that takes advantage of the HP 4200's larger, four-line display. It sends the current weather conditions which I grab from NOAA using the perl Geo::METAR module. It updates every 10 minutes. Amazingly, while many people noticed the report on the printer display, no one questioned it!

People are endlessly surprising. Isn't it great?

NOTE: There have been many requests for help with this. Non-networked printers, running the script, etc. While I cannot guarantee anything, you might find help on FreeNode's #perl IRC channel, here. In about three days this post has garnered more than 105,000 unique visitors. If a few of you can lurk there and help out it would be great. Apparently many of us share a sense of humor. Maybe there is an "INSERT COIN" community. Who knows?

A Philosophical Comment

The anonymous comment below, accusing me of considering myself "king of the hacker elite" made me re-read this post. I originally thought he was responding to a comment I made, not the post itself. After thinking about it I realized he might not have read any of the comments at all. That being the case, let me be very clear about something: while I definitely enjoy being extremely extroverted in my attention, and noticing all sorts of details and peculiarities in the world around me, I do not believe that such a tendency is exclusively meritorious or inherently superior. I work with many people who do not share this cognitive style but are intelligent, insightful people who have taught me a lot. Please don't take the observations above as belittling people who don't share my natural fascination with the things in the world. That would be much different than my intention.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Lesser Arts of Life

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution had a dramatic impact on the lives of traditional artisans and craftsmen. Factories appeared turning out cheap, identical wares which aped the possessions of the rich. Fake porcelain, fake ornamental furniture and other goods made to appear posh flooded the market. The makers of traditional pottery, furniture, clothing and the like intended for sale to the average person, found themselves with no choice but to take factory jobs. These jobs paid less and offered little satisfaction.

William Morris 1834-1896

In response, the Arts & Crafts Movement was founded. William Morris is acknowledged as its father. Morris had a vision for a better way to provide the necessities of life to the average person. He reviled the factory-made goods as soulless and ugly. He looked for meaningful work for the masses. In his essay "Useful Work versus Useless Toil" he begins:

The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it - he is "employed," as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only "industrious" enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the scared cause of labour. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself - a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.

Ultimately, Morris became a Socialist. It is a logical progression but not, for me, important. Instead the Arts & Crafts movement itself is what I find so valuable about his thinking. The movement spawned groups in the U.S. as well. Here, the Craftsmen Movement and the groups associated with it (some of them utopian communities) set out a comprehensive aesthetic system which covered the furniture, textiles, pottery, jewelry and other items they produced. They were in direct competition with the factories and produced beautiful work intended to be within the reach of the average person. Ironically, today their work is unaffordable except by the wealthy.

In 1882, Morris delivered a speech to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in London. He called it The Lesser Arts of Life and in it he laid out much of his thinking about the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement as well as not a little history of artisanship. It is long and not particularly easy to read but I find the trouble worth it. It has the ability to provide a new perspective on "making a living". What Morris says, in principle, about the work of artisans applies to all creative workers including programmers, system administrators and anyone who creates a unique work product as their "living". Read it and think about it, you might find something to help make the work you must do something worth doing.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Problem with "Don't mind the Entropy"

The basis for the dialog was an idea that occurred to me when I was reading a few things on quantum computing. It is intentionally vague in areas, mostly it was just a fun idea. However, in a somewhat serious discussion with my friend Craig Lent, he pointed out a problem with my coin-flipping version of Penrose's variation on Schrödinger's gedankenexperiment. That is, he pointed out that Chaos Theory and its sensitivity to initial starting conditions probably doesn't allow me, even in principle, to do the experiment. Basically there probably aren't even enough particles in the universe to specify the starting conditions precisely enough.

This "flaw" does give me other ideas, though...


Don't Mind the Entropy

If you're right about this it's going to make global warming look like Y2K!

Oh, I'm right you can count on it. Take another look in the box.

One look was disturbing enough, thanks. But I still don't understand, what is it you say is happening?

OK, one more time, slowly. You know that around 2005 or so, people started using quantum effects to build computing devices. Quantum Cellular Automata, photonic random number generators, that sort of thing?

Yes, I remember the buzz about QCA, but didn't that stuff turn out to be a dead end?

It sure did, when Fuji and Stein published their paper on Direct Quantum Computation in 2010 everything else became obsolete overnight. DQC made the whole thing incredibly simple, and erased the line between classical and quantum computation.

OK, so what?

So, that was the beginning.

Fine, but the beginning of what?!

The beginning of the leak.

The leak?

Yes, the leak.

Just what is leaking?

So far as I have been able to figure out, entropy.

Entropy is leaking?

Yes, entropy from the quantum world is leaking into the classical one.

How does that work, exactly?

Look, we have always thought that things in our world, the classical world, could be random, right?

Sure. I mean of course things are random.



Nope. Things can be very, very complex--but it turns out, if I am right, they were never random.

I see... Actually, I don't see, what the heck are you talking about?!

OK, OK, let me explain. Take a coin toss. A fair coin, heads or tails, random right?




Yes. Let's say you have a perfect isolation box and in the box you have a fair coin and a precision coin flipper. Get it so far?


Now you also have a computer that, in principle, knows everything about the state of the box and content and can calculate exactly what will happen in the box. You following this?

I am... but I am not sure I like it...

OK, so you simulate the process of flipping the coin, and you really do it, in the box. The computer "knows" everything that is happening in the box, see?


Well, it isn't random, see?! Just very complicated. It appears random, but it always follows the laws of classical mechanics. 100% predictable.

Hmm. How does this explain what's it that box?

Well, that box was a similar experiment. I didn't expect it to work, in practice. I mean, it isn't very well isolated, but—well you've seen inside!

Oh... hang on... that box... that's Schrödinger's cat!
Yes, it is.

But, what happened to it!?

That's what I have been trying to tell you. We've got a leak and things are started to break.

Your entropy leak? How does it cause... that?!

Well, you saw how the coin toss wasn't really random?


Stuff in the quantum world is random, really random. Not just very complicated, totally random. That was the point of Schrödinger's gedankenexperiment. You can't know the state of the cat unless you look, because it depends on a quantum event. When you do, the wavefunction collapses and the cat is either alive or dead. But, with the leak... well... things aren't working.

Not working?! That may be the winner for understatement of the millenium. Let me get this straight... Normally, looking in the box would force the state of the cat to either alive or dead?

Yes, normally, observation brings the whole thing in the classical world. But there has never been anything in the math or physics to prohibit a superposition in the classical world, in fact it was a mystery that we never saw it.

Well... I would rather have never seen it, personally.

I'm afraid you'll need to get used to it. You are going to be seeing a lot more, if I am right. Here's what I have figured out so far. The quantum world gives rise to the classical world, somehow. That is, all the stuff we see here is dependent on an interaction between quantum and classical mechanics. Each plays a role. The complexity of the world is where they interface. And the DCQ stuff punches a hole in that, every time it is used. The real randomness of the quantum world leaks into the classical and makes the normal interaction weaker. We've had these things in everything from comm units to cars for what, 20 years now? It is starting to take a toll.

So you are saying that it observation isn't enough to collapse the wavefunction any more?

Yes, that's pretty much it. If you force the superposition, like with the cat, just looking isn't enough anymore.

This is very, very bad.

It may be worse that that, there's more.


Yes. In the 1980's Roger Penrose proposed that human consciousness was a quantum effect. The idea was supressed by the quantum orthodoxy, in spite of plenty of merit. If he was right...

If he was right then...

Then very, very bad may not even be close to correct.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Life Should be an Adventure

Movies are a vehicle for vicarious adventure. We love to sit for an hour or two and experience adventures through our favorite characters. Surely there's nothing wrong with that--or is there? Why should we live vicariously? Why aren't we the ones living the adventure? What is stopping you from doing what you love? Shouldn't we stop sitting around and start doing something about this?

We don't all need to be action heroes, or famous (if that's what you want, go for it) but we can all do something great. It is only our limited expectations that prevent us. We can think of a thousand reasons why we can't do something really, really wonderful but we only need to think of one reason to do it and then pay attention to that!

I don't know about you but I am sorely tired of not doing something great. It is time for me to do something about it. I don't know what it is going to be yet, but it will be something--or many things! I hope you will join me, I am going to have a heck of a time.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

It's not Titanium, it's Better!

A few months ago I decided I needed a higher capacity USB flash drive. I was very happy with my Sandisk Cruzer Micro (mine was the previous generation), but it was puny (512MB, never mind my first hard drive was 20!), and I didn't like the loose cap that covers the connector. I had seen the new Sandisk Cruzer Micro and liked the idea of 4GB and the retractable connector—no cap to lose!

I ordered one and started carrying it in my pocket just like its predecessor. Pretty quickly I realized it wasn't going hold up. Unlike the old Micro, which was metal and covered with a thick clear vinyl-like plastic, this one seemed, well, cheap. The truth is, when I ordered the plastic one I really wanted the titanium one but I really didn't feel I could justify the added cost. (The street prices on these things are a lot less than the list price on Sandisk's site.)

When I found the cheaper one wasn't likely to hold up well, I had a reason to get the cool titanium one. So I did.

After a few months in my pocket with other items, the unfazed Cruzer Titanium

When I received it, I was pleased but a little confused. It didn't look like titanium. When I turned it over I saw a little logo that said "LIQUIDMETAL". Wow! This thing was liquidmetal. Unbelievably cool, much cooler than titanium. Liquidmetal, you see, is a unique material. It is a metallic glass. An amorphous metal. An amazing alloy. Take a look at the Liquidmetal website or Wikipedia for more information. So, I got something much cooler than expected, very high capacity and impressively fast, too.


Labels: , ,

Xnest: Fun with X-Window

So, it turns out that Xnest, in spite of being part of most standard distributions of X-Window, is obscure. Too many people, "I've never heard of that." followed by "Wow, that's pretty cool" so—here's the story.

Xnest is a sort of Janus of the X-Window world. On one face you'd swear is was an X-Server, on the other an X-Client. So why is that useful? Consider: I want to run a Gnome desktop session from a remote box but I already have a window manager running locally. Enter Xnest. If I run Xnest on the remote machine, through SSH, that machine believes it is running an X-Server, my local machine is of the opinion that is running an X-Client. What I see is an X root window. Invoke it like this:

Xnest -geometry 1150x750 :1; xterm -display :1

First fire up the Xnest application, then an xterm so we can use it, then, in the xterm, type gnome-session... BLAM, cool.

Of course, "man Xnest" is your friend, read up on other options. Just thought you'd like to know, if you didn't.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Frugal Hacker

Harvesting Cells for Economy

What do you do when your favorite little flashlight wants oddball AAAA sized cells that are going to empty your wallet faster than you'd like? There's always buying "wholesale"...

The flashlight I carry with me everywhere to aid my old eyes uses some very unusual, and very expensive, AAAA cells. (Yes, that's four A's). At about $4.00 USD for a set of three to fill the flashlight finding a better way to get power to the LED was certainly on the agenda. Fortunately there is a way to get a substantial discount, if you're willing to do a little work.

Technically, a "battery" is a set of cells—usually connected in a series, which raises the voltage. Each cell has a characteristic voltage, based on its chemistry. The common alkaline primary cell with its zinc and manganese construction, produces 1.5V when fully charged. (As a contrast, a Nickel Cadmium secondary ("rechargeable") cell produces 1.2V and a Lithium Ion secondary cell produces 3.8V)

So, the common cells—AAA, AA, C, D—differ not in voltage but in total current capacity; picture them as different sized "tanks" of voltage producing chemicals. However, the alkaline 9V battery is a real battery. It is composed of cells that are 1.5V alkaline cells and stuffed into that little square can. Back in my childhood tearing open a "transistor battery" (so-called because it was designed for the new transistor radios which needed the 9V potential in a small package) yielded a set of six flat little carbon cells. If you are old enough, I know you have seen these.

Today, the much more difficult (the cans are made a lot better) equivalent act yields six very thin cylindrical alkaline cells. By this time you have guessed, these are AAAA cells. At under $2.00 USD each for the 9V "host", we just got a 50% discount. However, in addition to the labor of opening the can (watch for sharp metal!), a little effort is needed to use the batteries in the flashlight.

The cells in the 9V battery are missing the caps that the individual AAAA cells sport on top and bottom. One forms the "nipple" a the positive end, the other the dimple at the negative end. The flashlight's battery compartment length is designed for additional length of these so if you just drop the liberated 9V cells in there, no light will result.

There are a few tricks that will make these cheap alternatives operational. First, beware of appearances. The naked cells are confusingly reversed in appearance with a "nipple" on the negative side! This is a result of the internal geometry of the cell. If your flashlight isn't working double check this first.

My favorite way to make these cells work takes advantage of the fact the cells were wired in a series circuit inside the can. The manufacturer spotwelds a small metal strap between cells as the electrical connect. By preserving two of these straps, and carefully folding over the cells so that they will fit in the flashlight, we have not only added to the overall length but improved the electrical connection. These straps will probably not add enough length, though, so a bit more "padding" will probably be required.

I use a small aluminum foil ball, about 3 mm or so, dropped into the flashlight. When the cap is screwed down tight, the ball is crushed flat and becomes a contact. The flashlight's contact on that end is one lead of the LED, it is the positive side. Note that this means you will be putting the flat side of the cell stack down the tube. A bit of playing around will get you results, this isn't rocket science, be creative!

An alternative method I previously used, and have abandoned in favor of the easier method above, was to put a blob of solder on the post extending from the negative side of the cell. This works, but be careful not to overheat the cells in process. I have some sympathy for those who find this method aesthetically pleasing.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Tools for Old Eyes

I got my first pair of glasses at 30. Though the opthamologist said she didn't usually write a prescription for such a small correction, I insisted. You see, I had started spending a lot of time in front of a CRT and I had noticed a curious thing, the periods looked like little ringed planets, and the rings—parallel to the ground with a level head—moved to whatever angle my head was tilted.

This was disturbing to me. I'd always had excellent vision. I had to do something about it. So, off I went, to the opthamologist. It turns out, no surprise, that my problem was astigmatism. Combined with a need for considerably more light and some presbyopia, I now find that I need visual tools for everyday life.

The Bigger Picture

I have my glasses of course, but I also carry a Bausch & Lomb 10X Loupe with a Hastings Triplet lens. It is a lovely little piece of glass.

A 7X Version of the B&L Loupe, Which I also Own

A triplet is a compound lens, three separate lenses cemented together. This technique produces an exceptionally flat field and minimal chromatic aberration (distortions of color). A 10x loupe requires a bit of skill to use because it has a very short working distance. The B&L glass has a focal length 2.5 cm. This is the distance from the center of the lens to the point of focus. The working distance, measured from the face of the lens closest to the subject works out to only 2 cm, though, and your eye must be symmetrically placed on the other side of the glass. The depth of field is small, about 3 mm, so the position is critical. Learning to use it is well worth the effort, though. You can see things that are literally invisible otherwise. This approaches the magical. Aside from the practical benefits, there are new and interesting things about otherwise very familiar objects. Fun, fun, fun.

The B&L glass will run about $40.00 USD, but it is worth the investment. The ~$15.00 USD Belemo Triplet Loupe has excellent reviews, though I have never used it. It has a larger field, but in photos I detect aberrations at the edges so it may not be usefully larger. Still, the low price makes it attractive.

Shedding Some Light

As I mentioned before, I have become progressively dependent on more light (and the resulting higher contrast). Reading serial numbers, part numbers, and the like—particularly in the poor lighting of ordinary rooms—has become impossible.

The best solution I have found so far is my other constant companion, a Streamlight Stylus with a white LED. The 12 candela of lovely photon flux does the trick. The unreadable becomes readable, the indistinguishable becomes distinguished. It takes a good 10 years off my eyes.

The Stylus is a slim, pen-like light that will set you back around $15.00 USD including a set of batteries. At about 15 cm, it is somewhat longer than most pens, but it isn't so long that it can't find a home in your pocket. It is very well made with a drawn aluminum body with a machined brass threaded section for the screwdown aluminum top. It is certainly rugged and will stand up to being treated without special care and probably some abuse.

White LEDs are wonderful things, though they are so common today we take them for granted. A white LED is really a blue LED with a phosphor that is excited by the LED output. You can see the yellowish goop over the LED die, that is the phosphor. The tendency of white LEDs to be bluish, especially at the center is due to the underlying blue chip.

White LEDs require relatively high voltage to operate. Most LEDs are happy at 3V, which can be supplied by two cells. The white guys want at least 4V. This leaves manufacturers two options: use 3 cells in the light or a charge pump that trades current for voltage and steps up the 3V to something that makes the white LED more happy.

The Stylus takes the easier way out and uses three cells. Unfortunately, to make it slim enough to be a real pocketable light, Streamlight chose decidedly oddball and disturbingly expensive AAAA battery. Yes, that's four A's. You've probably never seen one, but imagine the next step from AA to AAA to... really small. The low current-hunger of the LED means a set of these little guys lasts a reasonably long time. Still, at around $4.00 USD for a set of 3, the battery situation is almost a show-stopper. Almost. Fortunately, there is a hackish solution.

Labels: , ,