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A lost positive.



Updated: 2018-03-05T20:43:01.252-08:00

 



The Range of Solutions

2012-08-26T08:05:15.229-07:00

Engineering progress is typically a gradual thing. Usually the most dramatic advances are still stepwise, like moving the pieces of a sliding puzzle slowly into place. A new material or process is discovered, which allows previous design limits to be pushed back, which tips the balance in favor of different solutions than were previously infeasible or impractical. These are advances like the advent of molded plastics, which let us create cheap products of almost arbitrary shape rather than being constrained by the limits of sheet metal.Every once in a while though -- usually in time of war, sadly -- rather than taking measured, safe steps forward, engineering goes for the standing long jump. New technologies must be invented whole, with the advancements in materials, processes and design techniques to fall in behind, like ripping the tiles from the sliding puzzle and putting them back without the benefit of knowing the final picture. To me, these are the times when the nature of human ingenuity is thrown most strongly into relief. When we don't have the luxury of taking the next logical step, how do we intuitively fill in the inevitable gaps of uncertainty? Take the space race of the 50s and 60s, when brash yankees and cunning russkies believed that their way of life depended on hurling as much technology as far from the earth as possible -- and they did it in near complete isolation from each other. When the intuitive leaps were that broad, we had pretty different solutions to essentially the same enormous problem.Just getting off the ground, we had different approaches to building something with a design spec as simple as: a big cylindrical fuel tank with rockets strapped to it:On left, the American Titan II rocket was simple, with a pair of high-efficiency rocket motors; on right, the Russian Vostok used a mass of motors housed in dramatically spreading nacelles.Then once we got to orbit, things were even more interesting:Here we have the Apollo capsule on the left, docking with the Russian Soyuz on right, on a mission seemingly designed to point out the vast differences in our approaches to space flight.And finally, once we got to the moon:We Americans manage to send up an efficient wheeled platform capable of moving a farm of instruments and a human driver. The Russians? A stout robotic rover with curiously shaped measurement appendages -- ahead of its time and a bit alien looking.The Soviet stuff always seems somewhat more organic, more elaborate. Whether or not it's literally true, the technology of us Americans seems designed for space travel of precision and efficiency, while the Russians were building machines to challenge the mysterious cosmos. Certainly there were practical differences in available technology, materials and even goals, but there are thematic differences in designs here that to me speak to something deeper.I always find that when engineers make the intuitive leaps in design (even the small ones), they subconsciously draw upon assumptions of how things should be. Did differences in Russian and American science fiction put different visions of the future in the heads of engineers-to-be? Or do the smooth forms of Russian designs speak to a greater cultural willingness to take risks rather than stick to the platonic solid shapes of American designs that are more confidently predictable with slide-rule calculation? Or maybe there are simply differing aesthetic sensibilities at play -- Shostakovich vs. Bernstein.When we have to make the intuitive leaps, perhaps it is then that our dreams are given form.[...]



The Trouble with Trade Associations

2010-05-27T13:32:22.259-07:00

I've never really found trade associations to be worthwhile, whether engineering, design, or whatever.  And yet many people seem to take them very seriously, pay a lot of money to join, and attend all sorts of conferences put on by them.

I think I've decided that they often end up working like a sort of credibility ponzi scheme (not that this is the intention of any association's founders).  It works like this:

  1. A trade association claims to be an important organization of minds in a field where new ideas are shared to the benefit of all involved.
  2. People in the industry join so they are seen as staying in touch with the latest developments.  They can put it on their resumes, display the magazine in their offices, and reference the conferences they've been to.  This lends them credibility.
  3. Other people write papers for the magazine or do presentations at the conferences.  They are seen -- at their companies and by their customers -- as experts, increasing credibility and career prospects.
  4. Dues are paid for access to this credibility, giving the association a pool of money with which to create the magazine, put on the conference, spam me mercilessly and other activities that increase the credibility of the association as a source of credibility, which allows them to pull in more members and higher-power speakers.
  5. Repeat
Nowhere in here, however, is there much motivation for anybody to bring quality information -- information that they truly care about -- to the table.  Presenters generally are there for the credibility of having done it, and present information that won't get them in trouble with their employer.  And members, just by paying their dues and attending the conferences, are already getting the  perceived credibility they want out of the bargain, so it's not as if they'll stop coming if the talks are weak or unsubscribe from the magazine if the articles aren't top-notch.  So you end up with an expensive magazine nobody reads and expensive conferences people grudgingly attend.

If I really cared here, I could look into why certain organizations actually do seem to bring a lot of quality information, like TED.  I suspect, however, that these organizations resist being a club;  you can't simply join up and reap the benefits of additional credibility.  The organization is the information, nothing more, so people only pay attention to TED so far as the information remains solid.



The Casual Gamer's Curse

2010-05-09T09:48:31.139-07:00

As an increasingly old person, I have less time for games than I used to.  And yet, games continue to really appeal to me, especially as the narratives have gotten more adult (pretty much, I'm sure, as a result of my increasingly old Nintendo-kid contemporaries in the game industry).  Stuff like Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Fallout 3 makes my wallet come forth -- I want to play in those worlds and experience those stories.

There's the obvious problem that if I have, say, one solid 3-hour gaming session I can get a week, then a 30-hour game will take me 10 weeks.  Annoying, since it kind of breaks up the story continuity a bit.  More so, though, this problem is getting to me:

(image)

After each 3-hour chunk of play, I let the game sit for a week or two (maybe trying to play another game one week) and when I come back, I've lost the muscle memory and reflexes from the last session.  This repeats several times and pretty soon I have a stack of $50 games that I've played a fraction of. The last game I actually finished was Portal.

Right now I'm playing through Assassin's Creed 2, which is incredibly fun.  It feels like you are playing in something like the real-world Italy of the Renaissance -- cities just like the real things, characters taken from history, involved in a storyline that is plausibly Machiavellian.  I'm also bed-ridden after a surgery, so I'm able to play for many hours a day and so I'm tearing through the game, at a level of difficulty that's allowing me to enjoy the story and experience rather than getting frustrated with the mechanics. It's great finally being able to play on the red line in that chart again, like I was 15.

So my plea to developers is this:  make mature games that are shorter, but no less rich.  Movies are no more than 3 hours; I can enjoy one at one sitting and have a rich experience.  Why can't games be like that?  I like an iPhone puzzle game as much as the next dude, but it's as if I had to choose between watching sitcoms and watching the complete 10-DVD Ken Burns Jazz documentary set.

I still want all of the elaborate world design, latest graphics advances, refined complex gameplay, and entirely the complexity of story.  I just want it in less than 10 hours of complete experience rather than stretching it out over 30 hours with intricate development trees, equipment upgrades, and filler missions.  I'll still pay $50 for it, I promise, and if you want to use all that game structure you've built to release additional paid download episodes, I am all for that as well.



Don't Say Usable if You Don't Mean It

2010-04-11T22:33:03.214-07:00

I'm pretty sure Helveticards, a deck of playing cards with a trendy sort of functional Swiss design, is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but one phrase in their description made me clench a bit:
Helveticards are the beautiful, usable alternative to the traditional deck of cards...
That, it must be said, is a bold assertion, as if it's a wonder anyone can get through a game of solitaire with the woefully unusable traditional pack.

Dudes, the usability of the playing card has, due to the economics involved, been refined for centuries and has been pretty well standardized since the 19th century or so.  Check the comparison with a card from a generic China Airlines pack:


Okay, the Helveticard admittedly looks cooler, but more usable?

While the Helveticard has a tasteful small indication of number and suit surrounded by artful whitespace in the corner, the standard card packs it large and clear all the way into the corner -- suit below number so you can see exactly what you have with minimum fanning.  The Helveticard at least keeps the upper-left/lower-right symmetry, but if you happen to flip it upside-down, the card indicator is color-inverted for chrissakes.  In fact the Helveticard shows a disturbing lack of commitment to symmetry, with the big 5 and suit indicators off to the side with a definite opinion on "up".  I'm imagining a group of designers picking up their hands, fastidiously rotating their cards to be right-way-up.

Also, do we really need a textual "Five of Clubs"?  It's not currency, it's a playing card;  half the games played with it were probably invented by illiterate people.

Trendy styling, poor design.  Vignelli and Brunson would be displeased.



A Logical Conclusion of Abbreviation

2010-04-11T17:22:11.277-07:00

Attention internet users:  I am about to improve your life by up to 33%.  I understand the need for brevity in your communication;  why type the awkward "laughing out loud" when a simple LOL will suffice?  But why stop there?

In that spirit, I am now announcing the deprecation of LOL in favor of LA, which I shall use exclusively henceforth.  When next your chat buddy amuses you, Laugh Aloud with confidence that not a moment of your time has been wasted thereby.

You're welcome.



Review: Braun AW60 Chronograph

2010-04-11T10:51:46.046-07:00


I have a complete obsession for objects that combine design and mechanical function, and the wristwatch may be the platonic ideal of such an object (with the automobile close behind).  I've built up a little design-focused collection of watches -- so far nothing over $350 or so -- that I'm planning to post reviews of over time.  It turns out there are some really great, well-built designs out there that aren't frivolity status indicators.  So to begin...

I had a bunch of watches growing up (from the still-awesome Casio calculator watch to a variety of Swatches), but the Braun AW60 chronograph was the first that I thought of as "grown-up" watch.  I bought this in college, and for $300 from a Danish mail-order retailer it was my most expensive watch for a long time; I blew months of CD money on it because I couldn't imagine a more perfect watch:  a small, light-weight magnesium chronograph with a design focused on the beauty of function.  If I can make any claim to status, it's that I bought this a decade before Dieter Rams became an ID geek idol.

It's cliché to say a watch looks like an instrument (aviation, nautical, scientific, etc.), but to my eye Braun makes virtually the only watches that are designed like pure time-keeping instruments.  Most "instrument" watches have a design that only references the surface aesthetics -- the styling -- of an instrument for another purpose.  That isn't to say that I'm not into a nice altimeter-looking watch, but I still have more engineer's respect for the Braun than just about anything.

To violate my own point a bit, I'd like to draw a comparison to another instrument that I use somewhat anachronistically:

(image)

This is a caliper that was passed to me from my dad.  The ones you get today are really similar, except the readout is a little LCD instead of a mechanical dial directly connected to the mechanism of the caliper like this has.  The LCD lets me switch between metric and SAE units and re-zero my scale digitally, but, much like most digital watches (or reading the time from your cellphone for that matter), it loses the elegance and simplicity of the dial.

I love that the design of the "face" of the caliper is so similar to that of the Braun.  Both were designed to be easy to read at less than arm's length on an inch-wide gauge, with a similar granularity of "measurement".  Dieter discovered the same simplicity that the designer of the caliper did, and wrapped it in just the right styling details to make a great looking watch.



How I Accidentally Stopped Hating Work

2010-04-11T11:12:47.699-07:00

I've always heard two schools of thought on how to choose your line of work, if you're lucky enough to have the economic breathing room to choose:
  1. Do what you love.
  2. Do what gives you the income to do what you love in your free time.
The former always sounds appealing, but it has the tendency to turn your love for what-have-you sour.  This happens around the third time that you have a deadline, no inspiration or energy, and you'd really rather be reading a comic book.

The latter is the practical man's solution, and I have respect for that.  You have to put up with daily, nagging ambivalence, if not real hatred, but bills are paid and you continue to have that thing that makes you feel worthwhile.

I wonder though if there isn't a third option that doesn't get the attention it deserves:

Do what you can't stop yourself from doing anyway.

What I mean is that there is probably something that, when given the opportunity, you'll always be the one saying, "I'll get this."

(image)

Imagine yourself in a room of people sitting around a table.  On the table are pieces of paper that have tasks on them, just enough for each person in the room.  Everybody has to pick one of these up, and that will be their thing for the day; whoever picks it up first does it.  But if somebody sucks at doing what they picked up, it will go badly for all of you.

I wager there's something you can imagine on the table that will cause you think, "I better get that one because everybody else will just screw it up."  Hopefully there's some situation you've been in that's caused that reaction, because my advice is:  that's the thing that will get you through the day consistently with minimal self-hatred, a decent paycheck, and maybe better chances of advancement.

For me, I realized, it's figuring out how to go about engineering good things.  That sounds really ill defined, but it is definitely my thing.  If there's a need that can be solved by coming up with some logically engineered thing that will do what the intended user really wants to do, then I will fall over myself trying to architect the solution, every time.  Other people do this too where I work, but I think they do it for category-2 reasons -- for a paycheck.  Again, no disrespect for that.  But I walk out of the same meetings with a little engineer's adrenaline buzz because I got that bizness done.

I got lucky falling into a job where this comes up frequently, and where people let me do that thing I have to do.  Previously, I had bounced from job to job, not really understanding what I didn't like about each.  I can't say my days now are all thrilling excitement, but I have some pretty good ones.  Plus when I go home, I can play with photography (or not) and not have to care if it's any good.  Or I can just read a comic book.



iPhone App Review

2010-03-29T21:59:27.581-07:00

Everybody else seems to be doing it, so I've put together my rundown of my favorite iPhone apps after a few months of use.  Full listing inside...Evernote - freeIt looks on the surface like just a note-taking app, but they've put together a pretty interesting service that encourages you to keep your brain in this thing.  You have to get over the fact that all of your stuff is stored on their servers (although all the sending and receiving is secure), but they have iPhone, OS X, and Windows clients that automatically sync.  Among other things, the iPhone app automatically geotags your notes and lets you attach images from the camera -- notably once photo notes sync to the server, they are automatically OCR'd such that you can, say, take a photo of a whiteboard and search for any text that was written on it later.I've been using Evernote for meeting notes, car records, personal journal, recipe index, and password file among other things.BeejiveIM - $15It seems kind of obscene to pay $15 for a chat client, but this is absolutely the best one for iPhone.  It looks good, supports every chat protocol out there (iChat, AIM, MSN, etc.), and most importantly has a clever feature that allows you to receive messages while your iPhone is off, which I find indispensable.Wikipedia Mobile - $3There are a couple free Wikipedia browsers, but this is well worth the 3 bucks for a well-thought-out experience.NYTimes - freeOffers the whole Times and archives in a nice iPhone format.NetNewsWire - freeMy favorite RSS-reader, particularly because it automatically syncs your feeds and read/unread items with the OS X desktop NetNewsWire client.  I can't imagine not having this feature.The Weather Channel - freeIt's not the prettiest weather app (that would be either the built-in one, or WeatherBug), but it's got the most extensive information by far.Remote - freeApple released this very cute app that can control any copy of iTunes on a local wifi network with your iPhone.  If you have a mac playing music through your stereo (or remote speakers connected to Airport Express bricks), this is brilliant.Jaadu VNC - $20I know this one is a niche, but I bought it when it was $35 and thought it was a bargain.  If you have a mac always running and connected to the internet, Jaadu can connect to it from anywhere in the world, and lets you view its screen and control it as if you were sitting in front of it.  Using this to play with my media center Mac Mini wherever I happen to be feels like magic.Q Contacts - freeSimple little app that lets you pull up and call/email/text contacts by typing the first few letters of their name.PCalc - $10Okay, I realize there are likely literally hundreds of calculator apps, many free, but I really love PCalc.  The developer has been making various versions of PCalc for different platforms for over 15 years.  It's amazingly capable, customizable, beautiful, and optionally operates in RPN mode, as god intended.Twitteriffic - free / Tweetie -$3After researching the silly number of Twitter apps, I think these 2 will stand out for most people's needs.  Twitteriffic is the free choice, and Tweetie is the way to go if you can spend $3.AppSniper - $1This is a great app if you're either app-obsessed, an app bargain-hunter, or both.  It shows you the latest iPhone apps hitting iTunes, apps that have gone on sale, and lets you create "snipes" to alert you if an app you're interested in has dropped below a price threshold you set.Flixster Movies - freeCurrently playing and upcoming movies, theaters and showtimes (with location awareness), trailers, rottentomatoes reviews, IMDB links.  "Now Playing" is close, but this is a bit nicer.Pandora - free / Last.fm - freeEach has its benefits versus the other, but both offer really nice streaming personal preference-driven net radio, even wh[...]



Bad Design

2010-04-11T11:12:04.623-07:00

Bad design, particularly industrial design, is a subject I've wanted to write something about for a while, but I make it a policy not to talk about design unless I have a proper example as otherwise it turns out much like talking about love:  interesting only for the person talking.  So today I was fortunate to find a truly excellent example of just the kind of bad design I had in mind.This is the "Helios", by designer Kim Gu-Han, which recently won "best use of technology" in the 2008 Interior Motives Design Awards.  It looks pretty cool, and it is horrendously terrible ID. The Helios is an electric off-road vehicle with deployable solar panels that, in concept, can both run the vehicle while in motion and provide power to your house while stationary.  An illustration of its construction includes locations for a battery pack, a drive motor for the wheels, and the folded-up arms that fan outward to spread the flexible solar panels between them toward the sun for optimal surface area and efficiency while stationary.My problem with it is this:  of the many good and valuable things that ID can do, this succeeds at none.I see this kind of bad design all the time; a beautiful concept that cleverly uses a theorized technology for a laudable goal.  It causes the viewer to stop and think "wouldn't that be amazing!"  The problem with all of these concepts is that the theorized technology is used primarily to make the designer's concept work, without considering what could really be done if that technology were available, let alone if the technology is even plausible.  And it's often that technology that makes the concept so immediately amazing, not the design work done with it.Industrial design has many purposes.  It can make technology accessible, it can make it beautiful, and it can make it more efficient.  I, and many great designers I've had the pleasure to know, believe strongly in tightly linking the ID and engineering process, to the point of having difficulty distinguishing them.  Sadly many engineers treat design as mere styling -- a few curves and some color applied to the outside of a product once the engineers have finished the real work.  This viewpoint ignores how much good design can improve and inform engineering as it's happening;  consider the aluminum "unibody" MacBook, which displays great elegance in both its design and its construction using the machined aluminum frame as both rigid structure and elegant body.But ID can also be about the exploration of future possibilities, and that is what the Helios clearly intends. Great concept design can guide technology down a path that might not have seemed important before, or can bring human and environmental factors into focus by using technologies in a different way.  This concept does none of these things, although it is trying very hard to look like it is.Some analysis of the Helios:The primary technology of the Helios is its solar panels.  To power a moving vehicle and unfurl for home charging, these solar panels would then have to be both flexible and provide a substantial amount of power -- both impossible with current technology. No problem -- exploration of the future, remember.  But let's go a step further in trying to understand the theoretical technology supporting the concept.The Helios looks to have around 8 square meters of solar panel surface area while unfurled at rest, perhaps 2 square meters while in motion.  A small vehicle like that would be fun with 150 horsepower, which means that while in motion those 2 square meters would need to deliver 112 kilowatts, but lets make it 50kW to account for less-than-full-throttle average usage.  That's 25kW per sq.m.  Current Solar Challenge winners get about 1.5kW from about 7sq.m. of panel (able to push their ultra-aerodynamic, ultra-lightweight bodies on smooth roads), or [...]



Four People I Encountered Today

2010-04-11T11:08:21.481-07:00

... each of which, I thought, are an odd combination of reality and fiction.

(image)

Left to right: Blixa Bargeld, Sarah Palin, Jemaine Clement, and Don Draper



On Transient Appeal

2010-04-11T11:06:02.534-07:00

Maybe you've already heard of "HDR" -- high dynamic range -- photography. As the name suggests, the idea is to capture an image with a very large difference between the darkest dark and brightest bright, rather than flattening dark areas to black or blowing light areas out to white.  In theory, a true HDR system would include a specialized HDR camera, an image format with more dynamic range than normal, and a display device with extraordinary contrast ratio and color bit depth.All three of those are very complicated and only really understood by imaging professionals who spend most of their time trying to explain it all to people who make cameras, image formats, and display devices.Fortunately, you can also just apply a couple photoshop filters to a regular digital photograph and simulate the "look" of HDR by flattening the tonal curve of the image into the median range. If you go to flickr.com and search for "HDR", you'll get thousands of photos where people have done this.Here's an example I made:Generally I think the HDR version looks like garbage, but the thing is: most people prefer it. It reads as clearer, more colorful, better. As the photographer, I find that really irritating because it's completely disconnected from what I saw, and because I can see all these little artifacts of the photoshop filter like the soft halo around the building. Anybody can apply a photoshop filter to any old photo.The point of this post, however, isn't about photography. It's about cookies.A friend recently sent me a link to this webpage detailing one person's cookie recipe; a recipe for bacon chocolate chip cookies. To me, this sounds like one of the best things that I can imagine putting in my mouth, fusing sweet and savory, meaty and starchy, into soft (but slightly crunchy!) mounds of baked perfection.I'm not going to try to defend these if you aren't immediately filled with desire and a need for a towering glass of milk, but it sure does it for me and my guess is that there is some similarly over-the-top recipe that does do it for you.I wonder "why hasn't anybody done this before?" and I think the answer is that bacon chocolate chip cookies are HDR baking.The HDR photography craze arose along with the various social-networking-style photo sharing webpages. On these sites, popular photos are commented on, voted up, added to favorites lists, or otherwise elevated above the mass of common images. These photos are evaluated at web-friendly sizes on computer monitors of varying quality. The pseudo-HDR filters create an image that grabs eyeballs in just these kinds of conditions because they are immediately stimulating. Evaluate a pair of 8x10" prints however and the HDR version would look tiring and artificial next to the more natural-looking photo.So I imagine it might be if my grandmother were to make bacon chocolate chip cookies. I might eat through a dozen and decide that I'd prefer the old recipe on a regular basis and that then would be the recipe that goes onto grandma's recipe card. However looking at a foodie blog, bacon chocolate chip cookies look like baked ambrosia and I'll most certainly be making a batch, even if my grandma would be rolling her eyes -- anybody can add bacon to any old cookie after all.[...]



Applied Shinto: Musubi and Kannagara

2010-04-11T11:04:58.005-07:00

(For my introduction on why exactly I'm using Shinto philosophy and terminology, click here for the preceding post. I may expound on my almost certainly poor interpretation of Shinto philosophy, but for now let me define some useful terms from it.)As the basis for further essays I'll be writing, I first want to define two terms that serve as the foundation:I believe there is a fundamental quantity that can be used to describe and link broad aspects of human progress. Perhaps the closest term for this quantity might be made by stripping away the authoritarian overtone from the word "order" -- using it more as the opposite of "entropy" than that of "lawlessness". But more than that, this quantity is constructiveness, intelligence, elegance, goodness, beauty, and complexity all rolled up together.I've been looking for a single word to describe this broad concept because I think the preceding English words are specific cases of a single thing. All of them have to do with what I think of as progress: of things proceeding in the right and proper way, of optimizing the use of what is available for the greatest good. I think it's useful to define a word for this because it seems like there are a million arguments about a million topics -- politics, morality, business, design, etc. etc. -- that I am finding are best approached with the same basis for evaluating what is productive and counterproductive, right and wrong, a benefit or a hindrance.Fortunately I think there's one good word for this concept: musubi.I have read musubi defined as "the spirit of creativity", but there is a lot more behind the word in Shinto philosophy, with refinements and extensions of the concept that describe how it functions in the world. In its various forms and applications, it seems a very good fit for this concept, this quantity, that I want to discuss. So grasping my new word, I will begin:I believe that musubi applied to human endeavors defines the magnitude and direction of the arrow of human progress. Great men and women bring more musubi to the world than others. Successful businesses create it and increase their wealth. A well-designed machine is musubi made physical. Great artists clearly express the spirit of musubi in their work. Musubi makes the world go 'round -- better living through musubi -- Vorsprung durch Musubi the Germans might say.Here I'd like to define a second, related term: kannagara.Kannagara is the way of the kami, the many godly spirits of Shinto. I don't want to get too deeply into kami and their role in Shinto right now, but suffice it to define kannagara in practical terms as as "the path to an ideal universe". With apologies again for my probable slight misuse of the term, I don't believe this means an otherwordly nirvana, or an idealized utopia, it's more like the best possible outcome given the circumstances. If you think of the world as a giant choose-your-own-adventure book, kannagara is the set of page selection choices that avoid the world getting eaten by alligators or jettisoned into space, and lead it to the best of happy endings. I believe that the ideal application of collective musubi leads the world to kannagara by definition.This all sounds fairly hand-wavey and ill-defined, but I believe that my interpretation of musubi is a very objective thing, and should be resistant to subjective interpretation. My hope is that it should even have mathematical strength, although perhaps we can only define it as such in narrow and well-defined fields of study. Nonetheless, I've been finding myself looking at the world with an eye toward recognizing musubi with objective skepticism, and I've found it useful -- having much musubi, I might even say self-referentially.I'll be writing more about all this (and [...]



Applied Shinto: An Introduction

2010-04-11T11:03:42.875-07:00

Part of the reason I started this webpage was to give me an outlet for some essays centered around a certain concept that I've become fairly obsessed with. I've been collecting notes for these essays, expanding outward from this central concept, but I've been increasingly hindered by one problem: I couldn't think of a word for it.

This has irritated me to no end for two reasons.  First, that the English language, which I'm kind of a fan of, hasn't seen fit to develop a word for this concept that I believe to be very important; and second, that it's damn hard to write about something you don't have a word for. So to solve the latter problem, I decided to pick a more-or-less arbitrary word, "umami", for a while simply because it was a word in Japanese for a concept (a fifth taste sensation) that apparently the English language also hasn't seen fit to develop a single word for. I even started to justify the choice by likening the "meaty" umami flavor to the "meatiness" of topic of my essays, but that just made me more frustrated not less.

(image)

I think I've found my word however, and in discovering it I learned that I (unsurprisingly) am not the first person to become obsessed with this concept. I was on the right track though because the word is at least in Japanese, and the concept seems to underlie much of Japan's native religion, Shinto.

I will make this clear up front: I am not a Shinto scholar, and I probably can't even be rightfully called a Shinto student. Like most religions, Shinto has many interpretations and meanings to different people. But that very fact combined with the seeming open-mindedness of Shinto's followers makes me feel a little bit better about taking hold of it and building my own philosophy atop.

I also want to make clear that I do not feel Shinto lends any sort of theological or supernatural weight to my arguments. My belief is that most religions arose from man attempting to make sense of the universe, intuiting explanations for the world around him and laws to create harmony between people in the absense of enough data. To a greater or lesser extent, I think most major religions do a good job of making sense of what's important in life and how people should relate to one another, although most seem to accumulate parasitic dogma that distracts from the central truths that make the faith useful.

Shinto has its share of spirituality and mythology and I believe these stories are best taken as parable rather than literal truth. I am certain that there was a time when people believed them to be literal, but as we have pushed back mythology with science, I think the philosophical thinking behind the myth can still be relevant as a framework for looking at the world. I find this to be particularly true with Shinto, but the important thing is the useful framework itself, not any inherent mystical truth in the faith.

Okay, all that out of the way, I'll define my new word (and a second bonus word!) and begin describing this concept that has taken hold of me.

Continue reading here.



Perception, Common Sense, and Audiophiles

2010-04-11T11:00:54.377-07:00

Recently I've seen a resurgence of the "audiophile product makers are snake-oil dealers" meme. I'm not going to defend any particular make of audiophile product (I don't know anything about Pear Cable, which has been getting the attention recently) but I do feel compelled to defend audiophile stuff from out-of-hand dismissal, because I hate the false reasoning used by a lot of the critics and because I know from a couple years working at an audiophile store that some of the stuff is honestly pretty amazing.I think the reason this particular topic draws the kind of debate it does has a lot to do with the nature of our sense of hearing.Human hearing is incredibly sensitive, but it's a fundamentally indirect sense. Sight is direct in that you can look at something and describe it in great detail, and will probably say very similar things to another person describing the same object. If two people hear the same sound, however, they are more likely to perceive it differently ("did you hear something from over there?"). Nonetheless, there is a huge amount of information you can get from a single sound: things like the direction and range of the sound, size and shape of the space you're in, proximity and sometimes materials of objects nearby -- and those don't even address what the sound itself is.The problem is that the indirect nature of hearing makes it much harder to make direct, objective comparisons. No matter how much art and science is put into the design of an audio product, some people will always disagree about the goodness of the product, or even if it sounds "better" when differences are heard, because they're listening for different things or are focusing to a greater or lesser degree on details. Conversely, if you put two TVs next to each other, they are very easy to directly compare."Ah, but that's why we use performance metrics to make objective comparisons," some will say. That's true, but with something as very subtle as audio reproduction, performance metrics will only give you the crudest of comparisons. In fact this is true for video reproduction as well, where things like contrast, brightness, and color gamut are used for comparisons. But having worked in the HDTV industry for a few years now, I can tell you that while those statistics tell you something, they tell you far from everything. The same holds true for audio gear.Take the numbers that people always use to slam on audiophile stuff: frequency range, signal-to-noise, and total harmonic distortion. All three are useful measures of audio performance, but let me try to illustrate how little they tell you.Imagine a man blowing a note on a trumpet in your living room (ahem). If we put a curtain between you and the player, high frequency information is lost. If we run the microwave while he plays, the ratio between the noise level relative and his "signal" gets much worse. And finally, if we place a bunch of chimes of a variety of tones in the room, resonating with harmonics of the trumpet note, total harmonic distortion goes way up.The performance is now quite ruined, but with your eyes closed you would still be able to tell that the performer was physically in the room when compared with a perfect recording of him playing, even if you used a single speaker at the same spot in the room, at the same volume and so forth. How can you tell? There is a lot more audio information that your ear is picking up beyond frequency range, signal-to-noise, and THD -- subtle cues such as how crisp the "attack" sounds (transient response, in engineering terms) and being able to hear quiet sounds like the rush of air from the horn even when overwhelmed in volume by the horn's tone.It's that subtlety that [...]



Communicating with Style

2010-04-11T10:58:05.993-07:00

I've developed a preoccupation with grammar and literary style recently, which is a little weird for an engineer. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading things like Orwell's Politics and the English Language, I've been trying my hand at writing a bit, and I've nurtured a deep revulsion of business-world statements like"we will create go-forward action items offline"that replace direct statements like"we will assign responsibilities after the meeting".which I suppose people find uncomfortably committal.Sensing a need, a friend recommended I read Strunk & White's Elements of Style, which is 52 pages of awesome. With headings like "Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form" and "Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end", it's so succinct that you honestly can improve your writing just by reading the table of contents. The book is filled with ways of choosing words, phrasings, and structures of sentences and paragraphs that inherently keep a reader interested and convey your meaning. It isn't just about writing correctly; it's about writing to most economically get what's in your head into somebody else's.Partway through I realized that I was reading the programmer's guide for the English language; it ought to have a woodcut of an obscure mammal on the front.Following the rules in Elements of Style takes work, but the book implicitly makes the argument that if you're not following these rules, you're wasting your reader's time and trying his patience. That is, if you don't decode your ideas into writing that is easily parsed, the reader has to decode it and that extra effort is what drives him away. Your goal as a writer should be to convey your intent as economically and elegantly as possible. This realization tickled something familiar in my brain.It put me in mind of what I've heard from Google employees about their approach to writing code; a process for which the goal is also to convey (functional) intent economically and elegantly. As I understand it, they use a single language throughout the company and have an extremely fixed and structured style guide that is layered atop correct programming practice for the language, much like the rules in Elements are layered atop correct English usage. At Google, it's very possible to write good code that compiles and works, but violates their style guide. Conversely, it's possible to write bad code within the style guide that behaves poorly, but I get the impression that it's both more difficult to write bad code and easier to see bad code when it's writtten within the guide. In essence, you have to fully understand the intent of your code because the guide makes it harder to convey poorly-defined intention within poorly-formed code.I think that same kind of focusing of intent applies to written (or spoken) English, and is the reason Elements is so powerful. Of course some writing is meant to be more expressive than functional, like a sketch of a nude has a different meaning than an engineering drawing, but to the extent that your words are meant to convey ideas, forcing yourself to write with good style isn't just a social convention; it forces you to put your ideas in order such that you can encode them in effective writing. The structure of conveyance improves the intention itself.Closer to my own experience, I'll give another example that I think splits the difference between English and computer code: CAD modelling. This too is a process of conveying intent, where my intent here is a widget in my head that I want to make real, conveyed in a CAD model that can be used to manufacture it. It's a creative process in that I have a lot of freedom to define what form I want for my[...]



Smallness of Talk

2010-04-11T10:56:38.128-07:00

I've been lucky enough the last few years to have spent quite a bit of time traveling for business, within the US, in Asia, and in Europe. No matter the vast cultural chasms between these places though, I've noticed there's a sort of common rhythm to the business visit: Introductions are made and sympathy given for the frustrations of travel, Business Topics are discussed, and the day is closed with common goals, good intentions, and plans of action.

Then there's dinner.

Visiting US companies, I always find the dinner part pretty unpleasant. I spend much of the day dreading the evening when I'll have to pretend to understand football references and find gay jokes amusing, and know I'll generally come across as unsociable by trying to steer the conversation back to engineering where I feel less awkward. But as I started traveling overseas a lot, I noticed that I enjoyed dinner. Conversation, conducted in the simplified English spoken by basically everybody in the world anymore, was entertaining and engaging.

I began to realize that this had everything to do with the topics that we fell into discussing. When (at least) one side of a conversation is forced to use a second or third language (and the other side must throttle their pace and vocabulary to match), it's nearly impossible to talk about subtleties and nuance. No, the simplest topics are the big ones, the ones requiring the words everybody knows: love, life, belief, art, food. And this is reinforced by just not having much of the assumed commonality one has with one's own countrymen; they don't watch football in mainland China.

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Recently I've been reading a bit about Versaille during the reign of the Sun King, the political island created by Louis to isolate and impoverish the nobles of France, and thus solidify his power over them. Life at Versaille was an endless dance of ceremony, intrigue, and parties, and the the Sun King set the tempo. Rapid shifts in extravagant fashions ensured that nobles spent all their money on frivolities, and the swirling succession of social events ensured that enemies were kept close, and infighting was maximized. It was a shared, contained, small little world made of nothing but subtlety and nuance, that left no time or resources to engage in substance, unless you were the Sun King.

Similarly, dinners between Americans (and I would assume other countrymen) seem to be dominated by the guy who has mastered the subtleties of the standard small talk between Americans. Once you're outside Versaille and talking to people of the world, conversation becomes more substantial and less dominated by anybody.

I suck at the dinners with Americans, but I had some of my deepest conversations with nearly complete strangers in Taiwan. I found that really odd at the time.



Math Can Set Art Free

2010-04-11T10:55:01.884-07:00

In case you needed any further proof that governments in general will, in a vacuum of public opinion, side with corporate interests at the expense of the public good... consider copyright terms.

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Rufus Pollack has written an excellent paper performing a rigorous mathematical cost analysis of copyright terms, seeking to find the optimum term to maximize the amount of welfare derived from creative work, this of course being the correct reason to have copyright (and patent) law in the first place, as expressed in the US Constitution:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries...

This expresses well the balance between too short a term of exclusive right for creators -- decreasing incentive to create, and thus decreasing welfare through that lost work -- and too long a term -- decreasing welfare through work rendered unavailable or artificially costly, not to mention the loss of contribution of the public domain to the creation of new works.

Pollack encodes all of these dynamics (and many more) in his mathematical model and comes to two conclusions. First, as the costs of production and reproduction decrease, the optimal copyright term decreases. This makes complete sense to me, but hey, it's nice to have math on your side. If you want theorize a bit, you can certainly see how this artificial imbalance attempts to right itself in the rampant online copyright violation we see today with vastly decreased cost of distribution. At the least, this suggests that any copyright laws made should err on the side of being too short.

Second, taking some input values for rate of cultural decay and the discount rate of works from the real world, he concludes that the optimal term of copyright today is about 14 years. Making the most conservative of assumptions, the maximum is about 52 years (and the minimum is around 3 years given liberal assumptions). Interestly, the original term of copyright in the US in 1790 was ... 14 years. Perhaps a bit aggressive given the technology of the day, but at least they were planning ahead! Of course copyright terms today are typically lifetime + 50-70 years. Most of the works created in the 20th century remain out of the public domain. How did this happen?

Copyright law falls into a realm of policy (much like, say, space-bourne weaponization policy) that has very little immediate effect on a given citizen, but great effect on the business of certain corporations. This gives government free rein to push through copyright extensions that bring in campaign dollars and cost virtually nothing in public disapproval -- if government is willing to ignore the negative impact to the public welfare at large.



Keeping Up Appearances

2010-04-11T10:53:35.379-07:00

I was reminded this morning how much I like the word "misdemeanor". It's now used as a sort of a legal-technical term that I doubt many people associate with the base word "demeanor" any longer; I hear most people speaking it incorrectly as MIS-de-mea-nor, rather than mis-de-MEA-nor.

But it's such a good descriptive word for "a lesser offense" in a now-anachronistic kind of way. It's what a 19th century gentleman might use to describe the actions of one who had imbibed a bit too much port at the men's club and had danced a most inappropriate jig: "something of a mis-demeanor, I must say, sir!"

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The item that reminded me of the word this morning was the news that Florida representative Bob Allen was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution for offering an undercover cop $20 for a blow job, which seems to me the very essense of a misdemeanor.... I say, sir, in a public restroom no less? A most unseemly mis-demeanor indeed!



An Ideal Vice

2010-04-11T10:52:52.750-07:00

For my money, your best vices have three attributes:
  • Little or no wholesome benefit
  • An element of selfish indulgence (bonus points for substance delivery)
  • A pleasant, charming ritual (bonus points for required accessories)

You've got your drink. Sure maybe red wine has marginal health benefits, but really what we have is the slow enjoyment of wonderful, alcohol-infused liquids from glasses of unusual shape.

You've got your gambling. Not my personal bag, but I've got to admit that it hits the high points, although any game without a skilled human running it doesn't count. Scores extra for being in close proximity to most other vices.

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And you've got your smoking. Perhaps the best of rituals, it gives you something to do with your hands, you can (in theory) do it anywhere, and -- let's be honest -- it's the ultimate coolness multiplier. It makes Humphrey Bogart more mysterious, Winston Churchill more cunning, Marlene Dietrich more sultry, and J. Jonah Jameson more brash.

If only it weren't for the problems. There's the offensive smell and yellowing smoke. Irritating, but from what I can tell from movies, more or less 98% of human beings did it anyway in the first half of the 20th century ... before we started figuring out that it also kills you in painful and humiliating ways.

So with that in mind, I can't understand why the makers of the "electronic" cigarette, a cigarette-shaped device that delivers nicotine in vaprous form without any of the downsides, have decided to market it as a tool to help smokers quit.

I think I may finally take up smoking, if they can figure out how to give the device a quick charge from the flick of a "lighter".

Once you have such a device, why stop at simple nicotine delivery? This should be the Nespresso of inhalants, with individual cartridges of all sorts of choices and combinations of taste, smell, and over-the-counter substance. The first smoke of the day has the flavor of bitter espresso with a powerful kick of caffeine. The "eastern blend" smells faintly of aromatic herbs and delivers a mellow ginseng boost.

You notice a woman at the end of the bar, gazing coyly at you through a thin haze of alluringly scented mist that she lazily blows from the corner of her mouth. Your heart begins to pound and your breath quickens; you feel an athsma attack coming on -- quick, have a FLOVENT(TM) Smoke (now in breath-improving formula)!

Update: Crown 7 seems to now offer cigar, cigarette, and pipe form factor devices to the US market, but still only nicotine!



On War

2010-03-13T15:52:39.675-08:00

It's not the most entertaining place to start a blog, but I have to start somewhere:Many people, by now, are pretty familiar with the (recently-unheeded) Powell doctrine of overwhelming force. But looking back to earlier military theory on which this doctrine is based, I discovered that General Carl Von Clausewitz' "Vom Kriege" (On War), published in 1873 is available in its entirety online.It's incredibly meticulous and well-informed, arising from the General's experience during the Napoleonic Wars, and probably not worth reading in its entirety unless you're a student of military theory. I did, however, find the wide-ranging first chapter on the "nature of war" to be incredibly interesting. In it, the author lays out the fundamental algebra of war -- clashes of diverse combinations of means, motivations and goals that have played out in conflicts in the 20th, and now the 21st century.But the bit that struck me most was part of his dismissal of three idealized conditions that would lead to a perfect, logical war. Addressing one of these, he says:"[War] does not consist of a single instantaneous blow."In theory, the entirety of this kind of war would be concentrated into the preparation for the single decisive battle to be fought, with neither side launching the attack until victory could be ensured (defined by Clausewitz as the forced submittal of the enemy to the will of the attacker). This kind of war was impossible in the 19th century, but was made reality by the nuclear-driven Cold War of the 20th.But how then is this kind of war won? Clausewitz algebra dictates that war can only be won (in the world before ICBMs) with the real application of force (not just its threat), but also that war can only be prosecuted when the political objectives to be achieved are sufficiently great enough to justify the expenditure of resources, and that both are sufficiently supported by political will (the realpolitik term that we'd now call "popular support"). In the case of the Cold War, where the entirety of war was concentrated into the preparation, means and will were combined into a single term: money. Economics "won" the Cold War, when the Soviet Union gave way beneath the burden of military spending and low productivity. Because the means and will of our enemy were the very things we sought to defeat, physical war was averted by the USSR's inability to fight it.This to me represents an extreme case of another way to look at war, increasingly relevant in the modern world: economic war. Clausewitz calculates strength by "the sum of available means and the strength of the will". Increasingly in the technologicaly-driven US military, the means are economic, not human, and so we can (if we're sufficiently cynical) begin making direct monetary cost-benefit analyses of potential wars, assuming we have perfect understanding of the true cost of a given war. If anything has been responsible for the steady decline in the scope of war since WW2 (and I believe it has been a steady decline), it has been that the cost-benefit analysis has been increasingly unfavorable as globalization has taken hold. If the US were to attack China today, even if such a war were known to be "easy", the advantage to be gained would be far outweighed by the damage to Chinese industry that increasingly supports our own economy.Now the battles to be fought between developed nations are bloodless and conducted between dispassionate corporations, where win-win outcomes are as viable as victory and defeat. If the world is ever to achieve an [...]