Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Two bits 'o good news

The toothache lasted for a few days, but is gone now. Ohhhh, that's a relief [*]. And an even bigger relief: I got the PhD scholarship I had applied for! :-). I'm starting in late February next year.

[*] Well, it's largely gone. Prepare to find out more about my teeth than you wanted to know: it's a long story, but the problem isn't actually a cavity, but a funny shaped gap between two teeth that causes food to get stuck there and from this, gum pain (and don't think that gum pain can't be as big and burly as tooch ache...), which ultimately can't be fixed (short of removing teeth or something equally drastic).

Sunday, December 14, 2003

PowerPoint, Faux Analytical Techniques and Sales Pitches

This article on PowerPoint contains some nice quotes from Edward Tufte on what's wrong with so many PowerPoint presentations: PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ''faux analytical'' technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker's responsibility to tie his information together. [...] Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ''an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.''

Wednesday, December 10, 2003


Ughhhhrr, the last three days I've been captive to a damn toothache. The pain killers don't seem to help much. Last night was, at times, pure, fangs-gleaming agony. I'm really looking forward to that fresh, springtime-air of life without it.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Honda believes that robots will become its most important business

That's a claim made in this short update on commercial robots. It seems they're starting to take off and be used in real applications outside of factories, such as a 1 meter tall doctors assistant and a sentry robot. As the article explains, much of the drive seems to be coming from economic imperatives brought on Japan, such as an aging population and declining birthrates. The last half of the article goes into some technical details concerning the need for standard components and operating systems for robots - so people can focus on important tasks such as the robot's AI and vision.

Triple Take

To improve my fitness and to loosen up a bit of muscle tension, I've taken to swimming once a week. I usually swim at the UQ (University of Queensland) pool, and lately I've been swimming on Sundays in the later afternoon when the sun isn't so intense and things are quite pleasant.

Last Sunday I was riding down to the pool, which is about 20 minutes from my place. Most of the trip runs near the river, which lends a pleasant something to the surrounds, even if it isn't actually visible most of the way.

I was riding along a long flat stretch of road not far from the university when an interesting sight caught my eye. On the other side of the road about 50-100 meters ahead of me there was an older guy on the footpath.

He was standing side-on to me, leaning in towards some plants -- and there, projecting from his mouth, down and towards the plants was a big, continual spray of water, as if he was one of those water fountain statues, a plant-watering water-statue.

That image held place in my perception for, probably, a few tenths of a second, before being overthrown by the far more plausable notion that what I was seeing was a visual illusion, probably a result of the particular angle and distance I was viewing the scene from, rather than the sight being the University's latest research into genetically-engineered retirees.

The more realistic interpretation was that the water was coming from a hose was being held up by something that was actually further away than the man was, and that the nossle of the hose just happened to line up exactly with the guy's mouth. It was like one of those pictures which starts out looking like one thing then suddenly resolves itself into something else.

I had to laugh when I got a little closer and saw what was really going on. Neither of those perceptions was right, and I experienced a third shift of perspective. I had to laugh because I thought I'd seen -- with my second impression -- the truth behind the illusion, and as it turned out the first one was, in a certain sense, actually closer to the reality.

The water wasn't coming from some source behind him, it did originate from where his head was. At the same time, the water was coming from a hose. The answer? He was holding the hose in his mouth. It was a quite graphic illustration of the ambiguity our perception has to work with, and how interpretations that can seem so right can turn out to be so wrong.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

More Than Words for Snow (2)

I've talked recently about language influencing and shaping thought; here's another example of that.

John: "Come on Fred, we need a real effort here. We need to have that report done by the end of the week, we need to try really hard at it".
Fred: "Okay, but this isn't a matter of how much I want to get it done - this isn't a matter of simply trying hard".
John: "Thomas Edison said 'Success is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration'"
Fred: "Umm, but... alright, whatever".
Assume that Fred is right, it really isn't possible to finish it by the end of the week. Fred couldn't think of a way to respond, though some of us may be able to. The bare claim that all it takes is effort is there in your face, what can you say to that? Anything you say might make it look like you're trying to avoid putting in the hard yards.

How do you argue that it's not a matter of putting in enough effort? If you put in enough effort anything is possible. Supposedly. Of course, that's not really true, but it is difficult to argue that in such situations - we're talking about a report here, not jumping over the moon.

Success here is referring to two things. There's success-as-hard-work and success-as-finishing-report. Success-as-hard-work is referring to a success that came about as a result of hard work -- a success that exists. Once you have that notion of success in your head, that notion of successes that have come about, it's easy and natural to connect the success in success-as-finishing-report up to it. They're both successes, they can't be successes and at the same time not both successes. Doing so, however, is a mistake.

One -- the success in success-as-hard work -- refers to something that has come about, while the other -- the success in success-as-finishing-report -- refers to something that may or may not come about. As soon as you connect the report-finishing success with the hard-work success you are taking it to be something that exists -- and if a success is there, it's been achieved, it's possible.

This is entirely independent of whether finishing the report is, in reality, possible to do before the end of the week. This linking is, I suspect, what is primarily responsible for that gravitational pull towards agreeing that, yes, it is just a matter of hard-work.

BTW, if anyone who happens to read this has any pointers to web-pages, books, papers etc on the intersection of langauge and thought, I'd be interested to hear about them.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Thoughts in Few Words (3)

If you want to engage with reality you have to try understanding it

Friday, November 28, 2003

More Than Words For Snow

Ever hear that Eskimos have scores of words for snow? Apparently it's a myth [1], as their language has around the same number of words for snow as English does (snow, sleet, powder, slush, etc).

Whether language shapes and influences perception and thought is a hotly debated issue, and while I do think it does, I don't think it does so in the same ways as it is typically considered by people on either side of this argument.

The Eskimo words for snow are often cited as evidence of language as a shaper of perception and thought, and revealing it as a myth is often used as evidence that language does not shape thought. Another example I've heard concerns the fact that one language may have a term for a particular concept, while there may not be a way to directly express that concept in other languages.

Even if any of these were true, I think they would at most provide pretty weak evidence. And I'd say the same for the other 'evidence' I've heard -- I don't think they really capture the ways that language really does influence perception and thought. I'm not saying that no one has any strong examples, just that I haven't seen any -- in what I've read on the web, in magazines and in books [2] -- and certainly not in any of the popular discussions of this issue.

I want to present an example that illustrates a way I think language does influence thought, and fairly significantly influence it. The setting is as follows. There's a research group in a university computing department who have a novel idea for a piece of computer security software. The idea itself is quite general, and could be applied in a number of situations, and what they're currently looking to do is find some commercial interest that would allow them to pilot the system in a more concrete setting.

They are in a design meeting where they are trying to put together requirements for the system, as a starting point for any potential commercialisation. One member of the team is at the whiteboard, where he's written up two colomns, one saying 'needs to have' and the other 'wants to have'. These coloumns are referring to features the software could have -- and how critical the team thinks they are.

After these colomns have been drawn up on the board, one member of the team interjects that perhaps there could be multiple sets of 'needs to have' and multiple sets of 'wants to have'. The person at the whiteboard turns to the person and with a look of incredulity asks how there could be multiple set of 'needs to have'.

He goes on to say: if the software needs to have a feature, then it goes under 'needs to have' and if it doesn't need to have the feature, then the feature has to be something that we want the system to have or something we don't want the system to have -- there's no other possibility!

And regardless of how watertight that argument may sound, it's wrong. There can be multiple, different sets of 'need to have' because what features are critical (need to have) depends on the context the system will be applied in. As was mentioned earlier, the idea behind the software is quite general, and could be applied in a number of situations. The particular situation may influence which features the system needs to have, and which are merely desirable.

So if the argument was wrong, how can it sound convincing? Well, it's basically because the argument was based on the meaning of the words 'need to have' rather than on a consideration of the situation that those words were being applied to. If you just consider those words you have to conclude that you either need to have something or you don't need it, and that there's no two ways about it.

Essentially, the mistaken argument arised from putting words before reality. That is, thinking of the words first, then trying to think of the reality in terms of those words. We can see the truth by considering the reality first, then considering the words we're concerned with in terms of that reality. This means realising that we're considering features of the system, then thinking that the possible set of features will depend on what setting the ideas are applied to, and that thus 'need to know' depends on the setting.

I'll stop there. Perhaps I haven't made the strongest case for why langauge strongly influences thought in this fashion. Though I've seen a number of other examples of this nature in the past, other examples aren't things I can come up with from memory, so I'll be on the look out for more examples in the future - watch this space. Another thing I'd like to get into someday, hopefully soon, is why I think people tend to put words first. I think there is a very general mechanism at work in our minds that gives rise to this way of thinking -- and much else. Anyway, I've had enough for tonight -- I'm tired and my lower back is killing me sitting here on the chair. Mumble mumble, grumble grumble, bah humbug :-).

[1] See, for example, here and here.
[2] I'm afraid that I haven't kept notes on what I've read, but I can recall Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct and that there were some articles in New Scientist.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

New Hope for Heart Disease

You might have seen this news already -- it's from earlier this month -- but I thought it's still worth posting: [paraphrased] Researchers have discovered a treatment involving good cholesterol that, for the first time, appears to significantly reverse heart disease (ABCNews).

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Razor Wire Looking Glass

Greg Egan has written a great piece overviewing Australia's detention of Asylum Seekers. Nicely written and informative.

Here's the first part:

Port Hedland is a sleepy, sun-drenched town, 1300 kilometres north of Perth. Early in September I travelled there for the fifth time, a year on from my first visit.

Each time I return it's as if I've never been away. The tranquil streets and cloudless sky must seem idyllic to someone in the right frame of mind, but whenever the heat and silence start to lull me into a pleasant daze, I remember the words of one of my friends who lives here all year round. He had trouble sleeping, he told me, because his room felt like the grave. For him, the sense of being stranded, untouched by time, isn't restful at all. It's exactly like being buried alive.

The immigration detention centre lies at the eastern end of town. The former BHP single men's quarters, now enclosed by a high fence topped with razor wire, is surrounded by ordinary buildings: a library, a school, a recreation club. This facility is known officially as a "reception and processing" centre, but there hasn't been much reception or processing going on here for a while. These days it's more like a human warehouse. Nearly everyone here has been locked up for close to three years, and many for more than four.

Four years without freedom is a long sentence in anyone's language. Some people who tell their families back home that they're still in detention after all this time are simply not believed. "Did you rob a bank?" they're asked. "Did you kill someone?" How could anyone be imprisoned for so long, just for crossing a border to ask for asylum?

There are people here who began their incarceration at the age of four, at nineteen, at twenty-six, at thirty-four. The ordinary possibilities of childhood, youth, marriage, and parenthood have either been lost to them completely, or distorted beyond recognition. There is no stage in life when a loss like this can be borne without damage; you might as well try to remove a pound of flesh without spilling a drop of blood. Worse, immigration detention does not mean serving a fixed term, with days you can count off with mathematical certainty. The sentence is open-ended.

Everyone here has been told by the government that it's safe for them to return to their homelands. Of eight Afghanis I know who've gone back, unable to bear detention any longer, six found the situation so perilous that they had to flee again. People returning to other countries have been arrested at the airport and imprisoned without charge or trial. In at least three cases documented by church groups, rejected asylum seekers returning from Australia have been murdered. That's the choice we're offering people: be delivered into the hands of your enemy, or stay here and rot in prison.

It's hard to imagine just how corrosive that kind of stress must be. Many people here are on antidepressants and sedatives. Many have been driven to self-harm. But even those who aren't plainly psychologically ill are exhausted, debilitated, by the impossible situation they're facing.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Language in Perception and Thought: Misleading Metaphor for Nanotech

When people talk about nanotechnology machines, particularly self-replicating nanotech, they often invoke biological metaphors, such as biological cells and their self-replication.

These metaphors can be misleading, however, as -- the article claims -- "artificial replicating systems [...] are going to bear about as much resemblance to the biological variety as, say, a 747 bears to a duck".

These metaphors may be causing unnecessary concerns about some of the dangers associated with nanotech.

Thoughts in Few Words (2)

Societies have habits called traditions.

Quote on Perception and Making Breakthroughs

The difference between making a breakthrough and not can often be just a small element of perception
     -- Brian Greene

This line is from an interview in Sentific American, entitled "The Future of String Theory -- A Conversation with Brian Greene". Brian Greene is a physicist and author. The line comes from the following paragraph:

To me that suggests what a fundamental discovery is. The universe in a sense guides us toward truths, because those truths are the things that govern what we see. If we're all being governed by what we see, we're all being steered in the same direction. Therefore, the difference between making a breakthrough and not often can be just a small element of perception, either true perception or mathematical perception, that puts things together in a different way.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Thoughts in Few Words (1)

What greatness has been stifled by this world? The vast majority, I'd say, for everyday, in subtle and overt ways, unknown potential is oppressed. A potential I think is carried by most of us.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Round, Round, Round We Go

Can you imagine someone dictating a memo onto a tape and then mailing that tape overseas and waiting for it to be mailed back so they can listen to it, before continuing with their composition? Sound ridiculous? Why would anything so here-and-now and connected to the author involve such an extravagant interposition?

In a lot of ways, that scenario is actually pretty similar to what's going on as I'm writing these weblog posts. As I'm writing the post with my browser pointed at Blogger's editing page, I like to keep another window open showing my weblog's page, so I can see what I've written in a nicer rendered HTML than the small, cramped up text shown in the editing page.

So I type away for a bit, click on 'post and publish' -- at which point my text gets sent from my browser here in Australia to (I presume) some server in the US -- then I reload the rendered display of the post in the other browser window -- whereby the text of the post gets sent back from the US.

This round-the-world routine only takes a few seconds to complete, and I do it frequently, without giving it a thought. But imagine how ridiculous this scenario would have seemed to someone, say, 15 years ago! Who in their right mind would even think about doing that?!

A point that I think can be made is that small details can be significant -- in this case the insignificant cost and time of sending that data back and forth -- and that we tend to assume that only the large details count, with everything else being roughly in line with what we'd expect with the large details being as they are -- that large distances involve large times and costs.

One place where we are prone to making this mistake is when we consider our future. With any issue, such as transportation, health or technology, we assume that the details that aren't mentioned will stay the same as they are today.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Opinions Aren't Always Just Opinions

Everyone has opinions, but we alone own ours. To a certain extent they define who we are, and while not all of our opinions are dear to us -- so far I haven't fought anyone to the death over my view that green is a nice colour -- some of them obviously are.

Not only do we hold certain opinions strongly, but we strongly believe in their sanctity. When I express my opinion it's not the same as me expressing a fact about the world, I'm just saying what I feel. How could anyone dispute my opinion - it is just my opinion!

Nobody would argue with that, except that right now I want to suggest that things aren't always so simple and it's not always completely true that opinions are beyond criticism.

One reason is that what gets passed off as 'opinion' is quite often not really an opinion. The ostensible meaning of 'opinion' is 'simply what I feel'. I'll call this 'pure' version of opinion. In the pure version, you've got things like "I like it, because it has qualities that are, purely in my subjective opinion, good". In the common version of opinion you're saying: "I like it because it's good". Often statements of opinion are veiled claims of fact.

But that still leaves the 'pure' version of opinion intact. What about some teenager who's really into one style of music, and who honestly doesn't like the sound of any other kind of music? This might be their honest and sincere opinion. They just don't like the sound of other kinds of music.

Is there anyway someone could be critical of this opinion? I want to suggest that there might be, though this will depend on certain details of that situation being the case. But before I explain, I just want to make clear that being critical doesn't necessarily mean being nasty or attacking someone.

OK, imagine if the person has never really tried listening to any other kind of music other than their favourite, and thus haven't had a chance to get used to another kind of music in its own terms? Perhaps their opinion is based more on lack of exposure than anything else? I think this is a reasonable way to be critical of an opinion - to be critical of its foundations.

There's a prevalent, though unstated, belief which is probably going to sound a bit strange when I say it: that opinions don't come from anywhere; they just are. Under this view, criticising an opinion is a bit like criticising the colour blue. You can't do it, because it's type of thing, like a colour, which the notion of criticism can't apply to.

But that view doesn't stand up to close examination. There's always something behind an opinion, some reason you feel that way. The reason doesn't have be a consciously chosen one, nor does it have to be significant, but this doesn't change the fact that it exists. I didn't choose to like the colour green, but no doubt my like of it arises from the structure of my brain or its chemistry, or perhaps it has to do with associations I made with the colour when I was younger.

And if we trace things back, we might discover things that we might not consider so reasonable. Should we consider that person's opinion to be just as reasonable as a well-informed one, with it being the result of not being informed? Or a more in-your-face case: should we consider someone's racist opinions expressing dislike for certain skin colours just as reasonable as anybody else's opinions on the matter?

There's another reason why opinions are more than "just opinions". They have a real impact on the world. Obviously, if someone holds an opinion, then this can effect their actions. If I like green then I might be inclined to buy a green t-shirt. While it is self-evidently true that opinions have consequences, people often talk about them as if they don't.

In Australia you'd have a hard time arguing that the average person's high-level of devotion to sport is a bad thing. You'd be told that it's just their opinion, that they're free to like what they want. That assumes that there are no consequences of them holding that opinion.

Consider this, then: we all have a limited amount of time, and time spent on one thing means less time for other things. Devotion to one thing can lead to underexposure to other things, things like making yourself informed about the way the world works, and the way things are at the moment -- remembering here that an intelligent, informed populous is important for successful democracy.

Or think about how the exultation of sporting heroes comes at the expense of exposure to other, perhaps more worthy, types of people. Anyway, I don't want to get bogged down in the details of arguing this point, but I hope I've gotten the basic point across - that opinions have an impact, for better or worse, on the world outside our heads.

At this point I'm going to try summarising things. There are three main points. First, though we tend to consider opinions to be opinions in the pure sense ("I like this movie"), most opinions are really expressions of what we think is really the case ("I think this movie is good"), that is, claims of fact. Second, I believe we can criticise the foundation of an opinion, even a pure opinion, and that by doing so, we may be able to say that it is less, or more, reasonable than other people's opinions on the topic. And finally, while it is often presumed that people are free to have opinions because that's just their own personal thing, free from any connection with the outer world, opinions can and do have an impact on the world and others.

So there you have it, my take on why opinions aren't always "just opinions". I can easily imagine some people reading this post and -- boom boom -- saying "yeah, but that's just your opinion". I just thought I'd get in first :-).

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Quote on Opinions and Facts

We are each entitled to our own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts
     -- Patrick Moynihan

I came across this quote while doing some rambling browsing. I saw a reference to the Wayback Machine, which archives the web, and decided to take a look at it. Through that, I ended up looking up the earliest archived page for Slashdot, from back in 1997 -- and this quote was the one they had on the bottom of that page.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

A Book in the Hand, and New Eyes for its Complexity

A change of perspective gives rise to an intuitive image of dazziling complexity

Think of some piece of sculpture, real or imagined, it doesn't matter. Visualise it, see its shapes, its curves, its lines, its angles. How could the complexity of such a work be expressed? How could it be measured? I have no idea what the answer is, but I'd expect that a major part of it would involve the complexity of its shape. Perhaps mathmatical tools of topology could be used to give some fairly objective measure of it, for example. Hold that thought.

Now imagine you have a book in your hand, again any book will do. We can also think about a book's complexity. This is something which has no doubt been done by various people, and I imagine that issues such as the complexity of the writing, the plot and the characters are common parts of such attempts. The other day it occurred to me a very different conception of a book's complexity. I'm not saying it's a better way, but it is quite different, and I think it is quite provocative.

It's really quite simple, you look at its shape. Turn it around in your hands and you'll see it's a prism. Open it up and look inside and you see what really makes up the book, the words. This change of perspective reveals a dazzlingly complex construction: the intricate shape of a letter, appearing in each of the book's letters, chained one after the other, in an edifice spanning thousands and thousands. This, the combined shape of each and every letter stretching from page one to the end, is the shape of the book.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Book Review: The Curious Cook

The Curious Cook: Taking the Lid Off Kitchen Facts and Fallacies, Harold McGee, 1990.

There's a kind of spectrum of tasks, at one end of which are those things you learn by doing, and the other end those things you learn by studying. We might learn history in books, but our knowledge of cooking is, by and large, firmly placed over the kitchen stove.

It's not hard to see why. Over many generations and millennia, people have figured out what works and what doesn't. In a continuing cycle, most of us learn from a parent or relative or from some cookbook, in a process of imitation, which gives way to an intuitive understanding of what works and what doesn't, and on and on from generation to generation.

Our understanding of cooking is on an intuitive, functional level. We can understand that adding a bit of salt will enhance the flavours, and we know roughly how much salt is required to do this - and how much would make the dish unpalatable. Which seems fair, for if we were to get an understanding at the next level down, we'd be getting into the realms of chemistry. And at this level, things get pretty damn complex!

It would seem that you'd have to know a hell of a lot about the chemistry, the structure of the cooking materials, how they combine and interact in the process of cooking in order to improve upon the millennia of trial and error experience and incremental improvement!

It is in this context that Harold McGee's "The Curious Cook", aimed at the lay reader, successfully brings to bear some understanding of underlying science onto various matters food. The result of this rare combination is interesting, informative and a pleasure to read - and it shows that a deeper understanding can sometimes be very useful. McGee not only knows his science, he also knows how to write in a clear and entertaining manner.

The book is organised as a collection of essays split over three sections. The first covers some kitchen experimentation to uncover the truth behind some kitchen lore, and to troubleshoot some common problems, such as how to keep salads green and fresh. The second looks at matters of health, covering the role of food in heart disease and cancer, and what part aluminum might play in Alzheimer's. The third entails some miscellaneous reflections relating to science and food.

In the first section we learn such things as why searing meat doesn't really seal in the juices, why bleurre blanc is so simple yet other similar sauces are so complex, a simple way of making mayonnaise, and simple formulas for getting the right proportions of ingredients for making various different types of water ices (something that you won't be able to find elsewhere).

As you've probably sensed from that list, the range of topics he covers is fairly eclectic, and, speaking as someone who's more interested in Indian and Asian cooking, it's also oriented towards European food. But even so, it's fascinating stuff, and a lot of it reads more like a mystery novel than a science text or cookbook. He'll have a promising lead, go down the path of exploring it, only to discover it was a red herring, and off he'll go on another lead.

One thing I found quite surprising was how wrong certain kitchen lore was, and how easy it was for him to systematically check it out using a simple kitchen set up (as opposed to an industrial lab and equipment). Like searing meat to seal in the juices - it makes intuitive sense, but if you actually check it out, it doesn't make any difference at all. Yet it's common lore that's been handed down and accepted from generation to generation. The only benefit seems to be that the searing helps to initially brown the meat.

The second section moves from food and cooking to its effects on our health. Specifically, he covers heart disease, cancer, and the potential link between aluminum and Alzheimer's. I'm a bit squeamish about these kinds of things, but I actually found these chapters more interesting than anything else. It's fascinating, and at the same time kinda mellowing, to realise that heart disease and cancer are more the result of imperfections in our body's functioning than anything else - for example, most carcinogens are do not themselves cause cancer, but are turned into things which cause cancer by our own bodies.

Most popular treatments of these issues often talk in very simplified and vague terms, and I thought this section really helped you understand the issues by giving you an account of what's actually going on in the body. In particular, the description of heart disease was very nicely written.

While he attempts to summarise the current scientific understanding of these matters, it's worth noting that the book is close to 15 years now, and I wonder how much things have moved on since then. In any case, I expect the understanding of the fundamentals he presents is unlikely to be much changed.

The third and final section is a scattered collection of three essays related to science and food. The first two are historical in nature, one talking about Brillat Savarin (remembered for a handful of epigrams, such as "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are"), who was one of the first to foray into the world of food and science, and the other chronicling the history of the substance Osmazome, which people once thought contained the essence of the flavour of meat. The final essay reports recent research findings that shed light on why we find the flavours of cooked food so desirable (while most animals, and indeed our predecessors, don't).

Entertaining, practical, informative and unique - The Curious Cook is well worth a look.

Home Laser Engraver/Etcher

The VersaLaser is basically a PC printer that allows you to engrave and etch designs onto wood, plastics, leather, stone and other materials. It uses a powerful laser, which can also cut through various materials (Article; Pics/Specs; Discussion). Apparently, similar laser-based systems have been around for a while, but not as a PC peripheral. One will set you back about $10 000 (US, I assume). Futher encroaching of the world of information onto the world of atoms.

Today's Comics

Monty - Night Vision Goggles, not bad
(Others: Pearls Before Swine, Dilbert, Get Fuzzy, Herman, Speed Bump, Strange Brew)

Thursday, October 23, 2003

A Nice bit 'a UI Innovation


DateLens is a piece of Calendar Software with a very interesting focus + context, zoomable user-interface (Details and flash-based demo).

The basic view is a grid, with each cell representing a day. You can zoom in on a particular day, whereby that cell will enlarge and, to give it more space, the surrounding cells will contract a little. The zooming is smooth and works in a progressive fashion: you can go from a small cell for the day, to a summarised view, to the full details. I haven’t tried it myself, but the interface looks quite natural and flowing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Idea for Web-browser feature: Highlighting Equivalent Links

Here's a simple idea that could provide a minor enhancement to the web-browsing experience. If there's more than one link on the visible portion of a page pointing to the same target, then when the user mouse-overs one of those links, have the browser highlight the rest of them. This way, the user can be alerted to the fact that they all point to the same place. As far as I know, there aren't any browsers that implement this and I'm not aware of anyone having tried it - but then I hardly keep close track on these matters.

It's not uncommon for a webpage to contain multiple equivalent links. Links on the site's navigation side-bar can also appear with in the body of the page. Or the page may simple reference the same document in multiple contexts; sometimes these links may point to different parts of that document. For example, a page on the university site may make repeated references to the university's as policies outlined on a particular page. Or certain links from within the body of the page may be distilled as references at the end of an article.

That all these links point to the same place may not be clear, however. The link text may not be the same on all links, for one thing. (In Internet Explorer, if you open one of the links in a new browser window it gets marked as read but the other equivalent links stay the same until you refresh the page, but this issue would be best remidied by immediately marking them all as read).

Even if the link text is the same for all the links, it won't necessarily be obvious that they're all pointing to the same page. I've had a number of experiences like the following. You might have seen a link in one paragraph and decided not to follow based on its link text and the context. Then, a minute and a few paragraphs later, you see another link and click it, because it this context it seems interesting or useful - only to realise that it's the same one you didn't want to visit earlier.

Because you were like most readers and didn't devote a heap of attention to the target of each link you mouse over, you forgot that the two links were the same. Memory is made more difficult by non-mnemonic URLs that are hard to read let alone remember. If the relationship was shown by the browser, I think this mistake would be harder to make.

If pages were written well, the destinations of links would be clear, and this problem wouldn't help provide justification for such a feature. But often they're not, and tools such as well browsers should be designed to best support the realities of the task they're facilitating.

I think it'd be interesting to try this idea out and see how it flys. It looks like it'd be easy to implement, and aside from it potential usefulness, I think there are other reasons it might fly: it's an incremental, evolutionary addition to the browsing toolkit, and it requires no overhead or change of habits to use. I also don't think it'd be too distracting, nor too confusing to inexperienced users.

Unfortunately I've got too many things I'm pursuing that are higher-priority for me than learning enough about a browser to have a go at implementing this. So if anyone is interested in giving it a go, please let me know how it went.

There's a lot more I'd like to say about this feature, because I think there are a few other situations it'd be useful in, and I'd like to go a little deeper into the underlying reasons why it's useful (or at least seems so to me). There's also some more sophisticated ways this could be implemented (so you can see all the equivalent links on the page, not just those that are currently visible), and I think the technique that could be used to do this would be useful in a number of contexts. There's just not the time at the moment :-), so I'll have to deal with these matters later...

Updating the food pyramid

The well known food pyramid, offering simple prescriptions for a good diet, is now just over ten years old. Scientific American have an article from earlier this year on what we've learnt about dietry health in the intervening years. It's both fortunate and unfortunate that, as the title of the article ("Rebuilding the Food Pyramid") suggest, we've learnt a fair bit more. Unfortunate, because better health will require changes in habits and established lore, but fortunate, because it ought to help bring us closer to that goal.

Songs that've got me right now.

At any time, there's always a few songs that make me want to crank the radio up when they come on.

I really like that new Outkast song, "Hey Ya!". It's got a great upbeat, funky energy to it, and for some reason it sounds to me refreshingly un-run-of-the-mill. When I listen to it, I get the impression that the guy doing the vocals has a real intimate familiarity with how to use his fairly unique voice: the tone, emphasis and timing combine brilliantly and there's a real smoothness and confidence in the vocal delivery. There's some nice lines, too: "ladies.... give me some sugar, I am your neighbour" and "Shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it like a Poloroid Picture".

The other one that's got me at the moment is "That Great Love Sound" by The Ravonette's (listen to a sample, at Amazon.co.uk). It's well-crafted guitar-rock/pop, and definitely worth checking out. I love the bit when the female vocals echo the "makes me want to scream and shout" (or perhaps 'sing and shout', I can't remember) line.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Friday, October 10, 2003

An interesting future for TV

Director of BBC New Media & Technology on the what the future holds for tv (PaidContent.org). Increased user control, localised content, more user input, ambient tv, programme sharing... and sooner than you might think. The article seems pretty insightful.

Today's Comics

Speed Bump - Author Apparel, not bad
Herman - Afraid of Dogs, not bad
Monty - It's Over, okay
Pearls Before Swine - A Fish Called The Truth, okay - it's a pun
(Others: Dilbert, Get Fuzzy, Strange Brew)

Qualitative and Quantitative Reality

The terms 'Qualitative Reality' and 'Quantitative Reality' occurred to me the other day, and they seem useful.

These terms aren't new, but they seem less common than I think they ought to be. I checked Google, and if you search for 'Objective Reality' you get 72,000 results, and 32,500 results for 'Everyday Reality'. While 'Qualitative Reality' brings up 176 results, and 'Quantiative Reality' only 158 results.

They seem useful because often the underlying, objective reality is not the thing of importance. The thing of importance is often the reality that we perceive and which we can measure.

In the large, the Qualitative and Quantitative Realities are the ones we live in, and I think these terms help to bring this to the fore. They can help us realise that much of our reality is changing, is a function of our technology and understanding.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Office 2003 gets thumbs up for XML functionality

XML capabilities in Word, Excel, and InfoPath help bridge the gap between desktop documents and databases, and give enterprises a reason to upgrade (Udell)

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Virtual Hurricanes

Supercomputer simulation of earth's weather models down to level of virtual hurricanes (New Scientist). This is the Earth Simulator in Yokohama, Japan -- the world's fastest supercomputer -- which is aparently proving to be a very useful tool for understanding and predicting the weather.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Game Boy Advance to go wireless

Nintendo's Game Boy Advance portable game consoles will soon be wireless, allowing up to five players to play together over a 2.4GHz radio connection (PCWorld). Wireless is getting pretty pervasive - I think increases in our communication capabilities is overall a good thing.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Sci/tech tracking

  • Wallami pines, once thougth to have been extinct for millions of years, were discovered in a small grove in a secret location in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, in 1994. In 2005 they'll be available as a household plant (BBC).

  • Philips have developed paper capable of displaying high-refresh-rate video using rearrangeable electronic ink (Story: Nature; discussion: Slashdot).

  • Differences in human activities on weekdays vs weekends affecting climate (Article: Scientific American; Discussion: Slashdot)

Making the corporate landscape more responsible

As a first step, we need full public disclosure of all factory names and locations. Such transparency will make it much harder to hide abuses (Guardian)

...in today's global economy, the product is protected but not the human being who made it...

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Design for a very nice office

Custom designed, highly functional office-space archictecture, developed for company's new office (Joel on Software). Some quite nice ideas, and really great to see considering how awful the design of most offices is.

Today's Comics

Monty - The Body Can No Longer, fairly good
Strange Brew - You May Now, not bad
Speed Bump - Change Machine, okay
(Others: Pearls Before Swine, Dilbert, Get Fuzzy, Herman)

Monday, September 22, 2003

Sci/Tech Tracking

  • Bilboards using 'digital ink' developed (New York Times).

  • Physicists have created blobs of gaseous plasma that can grow, replicate and communicate - fulfilling most of the traditional requirements for biological cells (New Scientist).
    • a few points in the article require some sort of justification
  • Single atom laser. A research group at Caltech has successfully constructed a laser consisting of only one caesium atom. The emitted light is very weak but highly ordered, so such a device may be used to control a quantum computer (Story: PhysicsWeb; Discussion: Slashdot).

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Today's Comics

...quite a good one I saw recently...
Monty - Schoolyard Memories.

Enabling rich structure in weblogs

Syncato is a very interesting new peice of weblog software. Essentially, posts are XML fragments stored in an XML database, which can be powerfully and easily queried by users (Staken, via Udell).

One important consequence of this is that it provides strong motiviation to add metadata markup to your weblog posts, as then you can use the metadata in queries, to extract useful information from the weblog or to construct custom views of it, etc.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Today's Comics

Strange Brew - He's following me again, not bad
Monty - My Old School Playground, not bad
Speed Bump - Recall Notice, not bad
Dilbert - Only During National Holidays, okay
(Others: Pearls Before Swine, Get Fuzzy, Herman)

Monday, September 15, 2003

Unweaving that Turntable Sound

The other day I saw The Herbaliser in concert. Anytime I see a group or artist who's using turntables, a constant stream of records and a whole heap of pushing buttons and twiddling knobs, I'm always wondering what is it they're really doing up there?

I mean, I know what they're doing on a basic level, with stuff like mixing sounds together, scratching and cuing up parts of the records, but I can't get any sense of the correspondence between actions they do and sounds I'm listening to.

Just what's on those records they're using? What are all the things they're doing contributing to the sounds I'm hearing? To what extent are their actions contributing to that sound?

Not knowing this makes it hard to really engage with the music as a live act - it almost makes it feel like I'm listening to a CD. And I think a lot of people -- the majority, perhaps -- have the same experience. They don't get it.

Not everyone, though. I'm sure it's a lot different if you've got some experience doing this kinda stuff with turntables, and you know what's going on. I've been thinking, it'd be interesting to have a little multimedia program that illustrates the kinda stuff that's going on. So if someone, like me, wants to know -- or there's someone who dislikes the music because of the fact that they don't get it -- you can just point them at it.

Micropayments Pingpong

I think micropayments would be a great technology, should they be feasable. I'd like to be able to pay 50 cents to download a some episode of a tv show I really want to see which hasn't been on tv for years.

I think Clay Shirky is a pretty sharp guy, but I felt the argument against micropayments in his latest article Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content was a bit flaky, and Scott McCloud has a published a fairly convincing (to my mind) demolition of Shirky's arguments. It will be interesting to see what Shirky might have to say in response.

Sci/tech tracking

  • New nokia phone allows users to print their own cover-designs with a bubble jet printer (MobileTracker).

  • India to use GPS technology to alert train drivers of obstructions on the tracks (BBC, Slashdot discussion)

  • High-tech window generates efficiently generates energy from light passing through (Wired)

Today's Comics

Dilbert - The Keeper of the Giant Binder, not bad
Speed Bump - More Facets, Clarity and Brilliance, not bad
Herman - How We Built This, not bad
Get Fuzzy - Spanielle Steel, not bad
Monty - You Can Look But You Can't Touch, not bad
Pearls Before Swine - At Least I Came Close, not bad
(Others: Strange Brew)

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Today's Comics

Pearls Before Swine - No Money for Bridge Toll, not bad
Monty - I Was Kicked Out, not bad
(Others: Dilbert, Get Fuzzy, Herman, Speed Bump, Strange Brew)

Friday, September 12, 2003

Sci/Tech headline tracking

  • Simple test for validity of near-death visions (BBC) - nice.
  • Bacterial battery - just add sugar (SpaceDaily).
  • Hubble sees very small objects in Kuiper Belt, but surprisingly few (EurekaAlert).
  • Carbon Nanotubes can produce Ideal Photon Emission, which can make fields as quantum cryptography and single-molecule sensors a practical reality (UniOfRochester).
  • Another phone network switching to IP (Slashdot).

Today's Comics

Strange Brew - Godzilla Gets Inspired, not bad
Dilbert - A Thousand Ways to Say, not bad
Monty - Whose Photo is This?, not bad
(Others: Pearls Before Swine, Get Fuzzy, Herman, Speed Bump)

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Misc Recent Articles: New Aibo, Bangalore's Infrastructure Problems, Cheaper CDs, Mars' Redness

New Aibo - There's a new model of Sony's robotic dog, Aibo (PcMag). Improvements include a new, quite cute look, more realistic and smarter movement, and better pattern recognition.

High-Tech Bangalore's Infrastructure Problems - infrastructure can't match business boom in India's high-tech city (USA Today).

Universal Music Group Reduces CD Prices - ...in an effort to bring customers back into retail stores and boost music sales (CNN).

Meteors Made Mars Red? - It seems likely that meteors, not water, gave Mars its distinctive colour (EurekaAlert from NewScientist). Also talks a bit about the issue of how much water was on surface of the planet in the past.

The economics of application installation - Most computer people are stuck in the "disk space is scarce" mindset, but Sean McGrath has been thinking about some consequences of this no longer being true.

Today's Comics

Speed Bump - I'm an Ideas Person, quite good
Monty - Are We Looking at the Same Bird?, good
Strange Brew - Who's the Joker?, not bad
Herman - If You're So Smart, not bad
(Others: Pearls Before Swine, Dilbert, Get Fuzzy)

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Monday, September 08, 2003

Today's Comics

Dilbert - I don't have the time, not bad
Speed Bump - Pot Bellied Pig, not bad
Herman - Thirteen Primrose Gardens?, not bad
Monty - She loves me, she loves me not, okay
Pearls Before Swine - Been Asleep for Centuries, not bad
(Others: Get Fuzzy, Strange Brew)

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Showing not telling, and not thinking about doing

I get the bus to work and it's cheaper to buy a 10-trip ticket than a ticket each trip. The other day I was in a newsagent waiting in line to buy one (you can't buy these tickets on the bus), when I noticed what the guy in front of me, who was also buying one, did.

When I buy one I'll usually roll out the slightly-awkward line "could I get a adult, ten trip, one zone bus ticket thanks". But what this guy did was simply to hold up his old ticket and ask "could I get another one of these?". So simple and (in hindsight) obvious!

Now why didn't I think of that? Actually, I think I can answer that: I (and I think most people) don't really think about the things we're doing as we go about the day to day tasks of our lives. This is also an example of learning by copying, which I think is a far larger component of our learning than is generally recognised.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Today's Comics

Monty - New Strain of Salmonella, not bad
Pearls Before Swine - Rat's New Philosophy, not bad
(Others: Dilbert, Get Fuzzy, Herman, Speed Bump, Strange Brew)

Friday, September 05, 2003

The Nutritional Value of Spam?

I've been thinking, maybe there's some good that comes out of that constant torrent of junk e-mail. Sure, it's time consuming and a pain, but I'm wondering if it's also doing us some good by making us more critical consumers of information? Although the potential positive I'm thinking of also applies to advertising in other forms of media, I think there's a crucial difference with e-mail which I'll also discuss.

Spam is full of dodgy claims about larger body parts, nigerian money, becoming more youthful, etc etc, and maybe it helps teach us that just because someone says something is true, and just because they've given reasons and justifications for why its true, doesn't mean that it is true. That is, perhaps spam helps us become more discerning about what is a valid justification for a claim.

You might say that, well, people fairly quickly pick up the fact that that all spam is rubbish and from then on simply ignore it. I'd agree with that to a certain extent, but I don't think it necessarily invalidates the idea I'm thinking about. I still think that before someone will competely dismiss all spam off the bat they are likely to have read some. And judgement of the worth of spam's claims must play some part in the decision to ignore it.

I don't know the answer to the question, but I'd be interested to know whether it has already been considered by anyone. Analagous questions in more traditonal forms of media, such as junk mail advertising or radio or tv advertising, may have been considered. There are also analogous issues outside the field of advertising, such as the effect of new media technologies, such as the printing press, on the critical perspectives of people in societies.

But coming back to e-mail, I think spam is different in one significant sense, because spam is locked into an arms race with anti-spam software and measures. As anti-spam software becomes able to identify messages as spam, the spam evolves to outwit the anti-spam software, and so on. It seems likely that spam will therefore become more and more subtle and will find smarter ways to get its message across.

For one thing, spam is likely to camoflage itself a lot better. I can imagine a situation where a person posts to a newsgroup praising the quality of a product being discussed -- where this 'person' is actually a spam-bot (sure, this sort of stuff goes on now, but people have to write it and thus there's economic constraints on its quantity).

The question is, to what extent will people be dragged along in this arms race? Will people have to become more discerning judging spam claims -- and thus any claim they faced with? Will this strip all the guff from peoples judgement centers - so people can no longer belive things simply because their buttons have been pushed?

It'd be nice to think so, but to come close to an answer would require a lot more investigation and consideration than I have given, and more than I can right now.

This whole issue reminds me of the statement that's been made that much of the behavioural complexity of creatures, including humans, derives not so much from the creatures themselves, but their environment, or rather the interaction between those creatures and their environments. Ants are, for example, quite simple creatures, but they can perform some quite complex behaviour because of the complexity of their environment (which includes the physical environment and the other ants).

I'm also reminded that things tasting bad is often an indicator that they are poisonious, but also that just because something may leave a bad taste in your mouth -- like your spinach and brussel sprouts of the world -- doesn't mean it's bad for you.

Commenting Features Added

I've added a commenting feature using the BlogSpeak system. There's a link at the bottom of each post, to the right of the time-of-post, where you can view comments on the post and add your own.

Today's Comics

Speed Bump - Madame Zubali's Seances, good
(Others: Pearls Before Swine, Get Fuzzy, Herman, Monty, Strange Brew)

How much does a cloud weigh?

Yeah, those clouds may look all light and fluffy, but in reality they're big fat bastards. (AbcNews - not their words of course)

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Origami helps cellphone cameras to focus

Picture-messaging phones may be about to get a whole lot more intrusive. Thanks to a novel and ultra-cheap micromotor technology, cellphone cameras should soon be able to zoom and focus with the same precision as the autofocusing lenses used in expensive stills cameras. (New Scientist)

Today's Selection of Comics

Pearls Before Swine - I Have An Idea, quite good
Dilbert - One Good Thing, not bad
(Others: Strange Brew, Speed Bump, Herman, Get Fuzzy, Monty)

Monday, September 01, 2003

Scientists Crack Silk's Secret

Scientists have worked out a feasable method for developing artifical silk that's as good as the real stuff (Tufts, via Slashdot).

Today's Selection of Comics

Dilbert - Blank Business Card, not bad.
Monty - Cartoon Fishing, okay.
Pearls Before Swine - Famous Initials, okay.
(Others: Strange Brew, Speed Bump, Herman, Get Fuzzy)

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Barcode plan uniquely identifies individual item

"A group of academics and business executives is planning to introduce next month a next-generation bar code system..." (C|Net)

[Cans] of Diet Coke have the same bar code more or less. Under EPC, every can of Coke would have a one-of-a-kind identifier.

Obviously, such technology could have a major repercussions (both good and bad)...

Time utilisation and task awareness

Time utilisation is something most of us probably wish we were better at. I've been trying a lot lately to improve my skills in this area, which have been, in a lot of ways, pretty poor, and it occurred to me the other day one area that I've got a definite lack in.

Keeping an awareness of the current task(s) you're undertaking sounds so obvious, so basic, that it's hard to think that anyone could not do it. But it's something I have trouble doing, and I suspect that a lot of others do as well.

I'm not talking about eating lunch and having no awareness that's what you're doing; I'm talking about eating lunch, wiping the last crumb off your mouth and then jumping into the next thing that grabs your attention, without having concious awareness that you were doing so, and without thinking, have I really finished this task?

Shouldn't I also clean up and clear everything away? But more often that not I don't think that, and sometimes I feel I'm floating around on a breeze of what grabs my attention and what I feel like doing. If you haven't got a decent awareness of what you're currently trying to do, then it's easy to get sidetracked and/or leave tasks only partially completed.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Phantoms in the House

A bit after lunchtime today I came out from my bathroom to hear Chicago by Groove Amarda on the radio. Cool, I thought, I like that song, and especially cool because it's one you wouldn't expect to be played on the radio much (I don't think it was a single).

Then a spooky realisation hit me - it was playing on the lounge-room stereo rather than my portable stereo. I keep my portable stereo on the dining room table (the dining room is combined with the living room) and I knew that it'd been playing before I went into the bathroom, and I knew that the stereo had been off - I always use my portable because it's more accessible and its controls are quicker and easier to use.

What the hell was going on? Had like someone broken into the flat and was trying to play with me?? Then I figured it out: the power must have briefly cut off - switching my portable stereo off, and when it came back on the stereo must have switched itself on and, as it always does, started playing the CD in its tray - my copy of the Groove Amarda CD, the first track of which is Chicago. A quick look at the microwave and its reset clock confirmed this hypothesis.

Today's Selection of Comics

Dilbert - Magical Management Necklace, funny.
Speedbump - The end is near, not bad.
Monty - Alarm-clock parrot, not bad.
Pearls before Swine - Survivior, not bad.
(Others: Strangebrew, Herman, Get Fuzzy)

Friday, August 29, 2003

"Unsubstantiated reasoning"

So often people don't justify things they say. I had aways explained this situation in those terms: that the person isn't providing any justification, that they're essentially just asserting that their belief is true. And while I still think that's a technically correct description, it's always been problematic in getting the point across.

Problematic because the person might have given some justification for some of their points, even if those justifications are simply a way of deferring their assertion - i.e. they are something that equally requires justification. I've been aware of this problem, but not known how do better.

It occurred to me that a useful term might be "unsubstantiated reasoning". Someone may present their reasoning, but they haven't substantiated it - there's no reason to belive why the premises hold, or that the reasoning holds, or is relevant, in this situation.

[A search on Google tells me that there are 29 pages (or 29 relevant pages - 73 if you count lots of similar pages) that use this phrase]

Phrasing and significance

Consider this: "Persistance is the triumph over skepticism"

It's one of those 'pearls of wisdom' - from some day-by-day calendar or diary (I'm not exactly sure - it was supplied to me by my dad, who shares a similar view on it as I do).

Then answer this question: what does it mean?

It seems a bit iffy to me. You can see what they're trying to get at: persitance will eventually overcome skepticism to whatever it is. I guess "Persistance will triumph over skepticism" sounds a bit too plain, so they've tried to make it sound more impressive, more significant.

Phrasing things to create a sense of signifance is fine, as long as there's substance to it - as long as the idea has some substance and the sense of significance doesn't come solely from the phrasing. I think this example is a case, though, of something that's not much more than an attempt at "significant" phrasing.

One way to create the effect of "significance" is to say something is something else, where that something else is of a very different nature. For example, "Channel X is sport" (which might be a sports tv channel's slogan), or "communication is the quality of brightness", or "resentment is the escalator of authority". It's the same kind of thing when they say "Persistance is the triumph over skepticism". More often than not, this kind of thing is simply a hollow rhetorical trick.

Another thing about that line -- it seems to give the impression that skepticism is somehow bad (it's certainly inviting people to see skepticism in a negative light, at least). I shouldn't need to say it, but skepticism is good -- it means only taking things on board if you're sure they're right. If you're not skeptical about things, then you are, by definition, simply accepting things because people say they are true or simply because your emotions tell you it's true, both of which are recipes for bad things to happen.

Got to go now -- I feel inspired to go out and wreak some persistance over those evil skepticism doers!

Weird instruction manual pictures

C/o Darren Barefoot's web-page.

Which of course means: "Do not pull fridge over speed bumps, particularly when wearing an ill-fitting belt"

Label it terrorism, do what you like

War on Terror franchises opening around the world (CommonDreams). In Indonesia, Israel, Spain, Colombia, the Philippines and China, governments have latched onto to Mr. Bush's deadly WoTtm and are using it to erase their opponents and tighten their grip on power

This is a good example of the power of rhetoric, or, in other words, the powerful effect that language can have on people and societies. Label somebody as 'Terrorist' you've defined them as being evil. In many readers you'll stir up an intense hatred, precluding any rational consideration by them. And the great thing is, rarely will you have to justify your labelling. Not that that would matter that much anyway, as 'terrorist' is loose enough to encompass lots of things that are opposed to existing power structures.

'Terrorist' is a label that encapsulates strong connotations. Such labels are pretty common: call someone 'Pigheaded' if they won't agree with your arguments, but say that they have 'Integrity' if they they share the same view as you and won't be persuaded by someone else. In my view it's almost always bad to use these labels, especially if you're not going to justify them.

(I know of at least one book that talks a little about these types of labels: Straight and Crooked Thinking).

Today's Selection of Comics

Get Fuzzy - chicken vs cat.
Monty - Mr Pi's comic, not bad
(Others: speedbump, strangebrew, Herman, Pearls Before Swine)

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Today's Selection of Comics

Get Fuzzy - they don't in sandwich form.
Monty - Mr Pi's comic, not bad
Pearls Before Swine - office with a door, not bad
(Others: dilbert, speedbump, strangebrew)

Anamatronic dinosaur walks amongst crowds at Disneyland

Sounds like it'd be pretty cool to see - check out the story at Mouseplanet.com.
PHOTO: Chandler leads the way to Dinosaurin' Over California.
"What is most impressive about Lucky [the dinosaur] is the degree of articulation in the head and neck, and the wide range of facial features. It's easy to believe that he is real as he “talks” with Chandler, or whimpers when his balloon floats away, or smiles and winks at a shy child. Lucky's motions are incredibly smooth—he doesn't appear robotic in his steps, or the way his head moves around to take in the scenery.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Real-time Pitch-perfect Singing with Autotuners

Autotuners are a piece of hardware that can correct and improve vocal pitch in real-time which are being used in the recording process and at concerts (GlobeTechnology). Unsurprisingly, people find this concept controversial, and this is clearly seen in the Slashdot article on the subject.

I'd say 90% of the Slashdot views are basically saying:

  • It's cheating and thus removes the emphasis on talent, which means that people with real talent get even less than they deserve.
  • It's against the spirit of what live music should be about. Imperfection is part of the live music deal, part of what makes it interesting. Interaction with the crowd and showmanship are what live music is about. People don't want the live performance to sound just like the CD.
    (There's a whole lot of stuff there which I think is pretty irrelevant, such as saying that that live music should be about improvisation and evolution of the music, which is irrelevant because using or not using an autotuner does not, in itself, have any bearing on this issue. There's also a number of autotuner/kareoke jokes :-))

    I can appreaciate their concerns. I prefer music that's genuine, too. However, Autotuners are a simply a tool, and like any other tool can be used for "good" and "bad" (as an example of the "good", if a singer in can't quite hit a note right in the studio on a particular day an autotuner can save a lot of time and money, which is certainly good for the little guy). The real issue is why commercialism has such a hold and whether anything can be done about it.

    But surely, you might say, there's nothing wrong with pointing out that something's wrong? The problem is with treating a symptom as if it were a cause, because it's unproductive and hides the real issue.

  • Of course, things aren't peachy now the war's over

    Report of poor commitment (or something worse?) of Americans supposedly helping to rebuild an Iraqi community (CommonDreams)

    Diamonds made cheap as chips

    New manufactoring techniques allow the cheap mass-production of high-quality diamonds (Wired).

    Naturally, De Beers aren't too happy, but from what I've heard they're a bit of a nasty monopoly who've artificially created the high-prices for diamonds. And not only should this help bring down unrealistic prices, but these manufacturing techniques should lead to some interesting applications for this unique substance, such as creating faster computer chips.

    Today's Comics

    Minor chuckles: dilbert, speedbump, strangebrew, get fuzzy, monty, pearls before swine.

    Tuesday, August 26, 2003

    Tobin Picture

    There you go. Amon Tobin is probably my favourite musican, and I'd seen plenty of sites with info on his music but never a picture of him, till just then.

    Todays Comics

    Nothing that great today.
    (Dilbert, Speedbump, Strangebrew, Herman, Get Fuzzy, Monty, Pearls Before Swine)

    Monday, August 25, 2003

    Internet access to full BBC library

    The BBC plans to give the public full free access to its programme archives via the Internet (BBC News).

    The article doesn't go into a lot of detail, but if this pans out and is implemented right, it'd be a fantastic resource. Just imagine recalling a favourite moment in an old tv episode and being able to immediately access it and share it with friends.

    CoherenceEngine blog

    More of a note to myself than anything else, I'm mentioning this because I stumbled across it today and it's topic areas seemed like thye might be of interest to me: http://www.coherenceengine.com/blog/index.html. Will have to check it out sometime...

    Sunday, August 24, 2003


    Don't be afraid to be a bright! A bright views the world in a naturalistic light, free of the supernatural. Let Daniel C Dennett explain.

    As Dennet says "[what] we want most of all: to be treated with the same respect accorded to Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more and no less".

    There's a slight negative slant to the definition of 'Athiest' : someone who doesn't believe in religion. Right off the bat you're positioned as something lesser. Bright, on the other hand, is positive. You can feel like you want to be a bright.

    There's not much identity associated with 'Athiest' - it's just the collection of people who don't happen to believe in religion. Bright, on the other hand, gives the same level of identity as 'Baptist', 'Hindu' or 'Catholic', and that's a good thing.

    Selection of today's comics

    Herman - "Anything to declare?", not bad.
    (Others: Strangebrew, Speedbump, Get Fuzzy, Monty, Pearls Before Swine, Dilbert)

    Distortion in news reporting

    An example of how langauge use can distort the details, with respect to recent middle-east reporting (FAIR - Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting).

    Saturday, August 23, 2003

    Nice Line

    "Just cos you feel it doesn't mean it's there" - I like that line! It's from the Radiohead song "There There".

    Haven't actually heard the song, yet. I know about the line because the radio announcer mentioned it when she was backannouncing that song and a bunch of others I'd missed. I like all their other stuff, so I'm keen to hear it.

    Selection of today's comics

    Strangebrew - "You have a problem", not bad.
    Pearls before Swine - Courage Awards, chuckle.
    Herman - "Can't seem to make up my mind", chuckle.
    (Others: Monty, Get Fuzzy, Speedbump)

    Japan ready to market "robot suit"

    "Japanese companies are preparing for the commercial launch of a "robot suit" that helps aged or physically disabled people walk, get up the stairs or seat themselves to relax without a chair" (Yahoo News)

    Parkinsons Gene Therapy

    "US doctors hope a ground-breaking surgery, the first-ever in vivo gene therapy in the brain, will bring relief to millions of sufferers of Parkinson's disease." (Channel NewsAsia)

    It's great to see examples like this of the progress (in knowledge and potentially-useful techniques) that's going on in medicine. Lets hope this surgery works out well.

    Friday, August 22, 2003


    Brisbane-based three peice band featuring a freind of mind, Pete Collins. You can check out some of their solid, guitar-based pop-songs online.

    Hyfinity's XML Virtual Machine

    According to The Register, a small UK company called hyfinity have developed what is essentially an XML-based Virtual machine. Code and data are represented in XML and can make use of inbuilt support for XML standards like XPath and XSLT.

    It's nice to see this happening, because our computing systems are really in need of support for structured information that's implemented at a much more fundamental level. But at the same time it's concerning to see they have a patent pending on the VM architecture. The patent details aren't discussed but, for one thing, others have thought of this idea before, and more importantly, it is, I think, a far too fundamental thing to patent, something akin to patenting a branch of mathmatics.

    Test Post

    Just got this set up - now for a test post. By the way, Explorer Street is the name of the street I live on. It sounded like a nice name for the weblog