Monday, October 31, 2005

Pittsburgh from above

Pittsburgh is a great city. It has that excellent technical school that I mentioned. Because all of the robber barons spent some time there building up their industries it has a disproportionate amount of cultural attractions, museums, theatres, schools and libraries.

Conveniently it also has a Mt. Washington right next to the Golden Triangle that is the downtown, so there is a beautiful view of the city that can be reached simply by boarding one of the inclines to go up the hill. Many restaurants have capitalized on the view and the easy access. Here are views of the Duquesne Incline (Du-kane not Du-kes-ny) going up, and going down. The incline is just a funicular, a train climbing the mountain at an angle. They are two working inclines which are now supported by preservation groups and run by the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

Hail Carnegie and the Kiltie Band

This past weekend was homecoming at my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University. You may recall CMU being in the news recently for Red Team, the team that built an unmanned robotic car for the DARPA challenge and for a host of other things. It has been 15 years since I graduated and while I remember a whole lot of people sitting next to me in the tent at graduation, not a whole lot of the class of 1990 came back to celebrate as far as I could tell. If any of you are out there please leave a post in the comments.

I mostly went back to see the world famous Kiltie Band march and play, and most especially cheer during the football game. Carnegie Mellon is a school full of smart people. This is not bragging, it is the simple scary truth. When you take a bunch of clever people and ask them to make up football cheers you get a lot of humorous, quirky cheers. The alumni seem to like it, although they are also products of the same crucible, so that might be expected. My favorite is the CIT (Carnegie Institute of Technology) Cheer. It's how I know the digits of Pi.

Ye Olde CIT Cheer

E to the X, dy dx, e to the y, dy,
tangent, secant, cosine, sine,
square root, cube root, log of e
watercooled slipstick, CIT!

Please no comments on the MIT cheer and the CIT (California Institute of Technology) versions of the same cheer. The cheer's origin is shrouded in mystery (and we were first).

Andrew Carnegie was Scottish and Andrew Mellon was also Scottish, so the Kiltie band wears kilts. This is us way back in 1989 (I am the 2nd Tuba from the right, click for larger photo). If you ask me what the school colors are, I would say plaid, our football team is the Tartans. Our football mascot is a giant Scottie Dog. Here I am on Saturday proudly displaying my Plaid Power towel. I'm on the right in the vintage Kiltie Band hat.

The homecoming game was against Case Western Reserve which is as much a football powerhouse as CMU (not at all). Since both schools are technical schools the game has been billed as the Academic Bowl since the first one occurred in 1986, my freshman year. You might remember that one since it made CNN and ESPN because it was combined with Diskette Day. Back when the 3.5 inch disk storage was new and a little expensive, the school had the clever idea of giving away diskettes to entice students to the game. On the first touchdown by CMU, everybody threw their diskettes on the field. It was loads of fun.

This year's game was very exciting. CMU won with a field goal to break a tie in the last seconds. We earned the right to keep the Academic bowl trophy for another year.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Knitted Digestive Track

This one is for my gastroenterologist father and for the rest of the family (especially me) who had to survive icky dinnertime conversation because the conversations might veer queesily towards work.

A very clever person over at has knitted a digestive track. It is quite clever and, according to my slightly more than rudimentary knowledge of the digestive track (more childhood trauma), looks correct.

Biological Warfare in the plant kingdom.

Did you know that some trees actively use biological and chemical warfare agents against other plants in the area to prevent competition? A recent article on the ABC news website tells how the beautiful colors that leaves turn in the Fall are part of a mechanism that trees use to actively discourage the growth of other plants near them.

It is lucky they are inanimate objects or they might be sending inspection teams to each others groves to ensure that there are no WPD (weapons of plant destruction) being stockpiled. Perhaps they would hire birds to do aerial reconnaissance or bombing to destroy production centers.

In human societies and government conspiracies it is always follow the money, in biology and nature and the rest of the universe it is follow the energy. This tenet, that living things do not waste energy and that everything is done for some sort of advantage demanded an explanation for why a tree would use energy to manufacture a red pigment in the Fall that didn't seem to be made at any other time of the year. Researchers to realized that the red color wasn't just because the green chlorophyll was gone and letting other colors shine through, but that the compound was a defense against other plants in the area and would be released into the soil as the falling leaves decomposed.

The application of good old thermodynamics to the issues of biology are highlighting the fact that we might not have a full grasp of business as usual in the plant kingdom. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch and the evolutionary pressure on organisms means that plants are producing these compounds because they derive some advantage from them, the pretty colors are our fringe benefit.

Monday, October 24, 2005

No Saving Parking Spaces in Wilmington

A venerated Wilmington city tradition is to place cones or chairs or whatever junk you have lying around out in the street in front of your house. Not for the garbage men to pick up, but to save your parking space. Now that I have lived in the city for a few years I realize that when you live in row houses, parking in front of your house is important because there is no where else to park. The problem is that these houses were built when there was one car per family not two or three.

My neighbors love to shuffle their many cars from behind the house to the front of the house for trips around the block, all the while moving cones and chairs back and forth to hold the spaces. It is quite entertaining. I personally have space behind my house, and one of the few non-converted garages on the street so I actually park my car inside. I am sure that it is too late to go back to the days where people had enough respect to avoid parking right in front of other peoples houses unless absolutely necessary. I have long since give up the chance to park in front of my house.

Wilmington has gone a step further by proposing a bill to ban saving parking spaces.
"Under the law proposed by Potter, an offender would be charged $50 for the first offense and $100 for subsequent infractions. Waiver periods would be included in the law for neighborhoods during annual festivals. That means Little Italy residents would be able to save their spots with barbecue grills, lawn furniture or lumber atop five-gallon buckets during the Italian Festival each June."
This bill to save parking spaces passed in city council, now the question is whether the mayor will veto the ban on saving spaces. On the 20th the message was -
"Mayor James M. Baker would sign the bill into law if it passes, city Communications Director John Rago said."
But now he is vacillating. I think he floated the veto possibility to see which way the wind is blowing among his constituents. There is already a statute that says you can't litter and that has been used occasionally to clear spaces, but there is concern that if the items in the street haven't been officially "discarded" then that statute wasn't sufficient.

I am normally against any new law that is similar to an old one, but in my true hypocritical fashion (which I admit to) I am in favor of this one because they won't enforce the other one and I really hate it when spaces are saved and I can't park on the street. I can't wait for it to be enforced on some of my more parking space abusive neighbors.

I love these local political issues because they encapsulate the problems with government, but on a bite-size scale. Someone proposes a law to ban saving spaces. It is really not needed because there is a law to cover it, but it is not enforced uniformly. Politicians argue, leaders promise and then recant as the issue gets touchy, and in the end its effectiveness is in doubt. I believe this makes my case for small and limited government.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Delaware Goofy News Roundup

It seems that Delaware has been getting its due out on the internets this past week. Fark has just been filled with plenty of Delaware goodness.

Nanobombs at University of Delaware

Fark(search on Delaware to see link) picked up a story from the University of Delaware about a professor using carbon nanotube "nanobombs" to destroy cancerous tumors. Besides being an abuse of the word nanotechnology and the prefix "nano", close reading of the articles shows that they haven't actually killed any cancer cells with this technique yet.
"They recreated the explosions in solutions including water, phosphate and salt, which meant the nanobombs could be used in the human body."
As with all cancer treatments, getting the treatment to the tumor and then activating it is the hard part. I wish the researchers good luck in their attempts. As for abuse of the term nanotechnology - I am 1.75 billion nanometers tall, but I don't see anybody declaring me a work of nanotechnology.

Delaware is not the smallest state

The above story also generated quite the discussion on Fark about which state is actually the smallest, since the poster incorrectly stated that it was Delaware. By area, the smallest state is of course Rhode Island, but the Fark discussion lent credence to the rumor that Americans don't know their geography, as several other "smallest" states were mentioned in all seriousness.

Delaware gets kudos for things we would never do.

Apparently there is a sardine festival in Aberdeen Gardens that somebody from Delaware attended. Why is Delaware attendance important? Because it was the first line in the article and mistakenly implied that the festival was in Delaware. As far as I know there is no official sardine festival in Delaware. I guess this is our loss.

Delaware has Punkin Chunkin!

What Delaware does have is the World Punkin Chunkin contest, where people build sometimes huge machines to hurl pumpkins thousands of feet. I feel compelled to report this so that fans of flying pumpkins can make their plans accordingly. There have been rumors year after year that the farm where it is held will be sold so this may be the last year that it is in Delaware. I hope we don't lose it. If we do maybe we can bid on the sardine festival.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The rules for generating new ideas and new business models

This past week I have been filled with enthusiasm for new business models and new ways of thinking about products. Not just new marketing of the same old stuff, but genuinely new stuff.

Cory Doctorow, who is possibly my favorite author lately, has serialized a new novel in Salon, called Themepunks. It is set in the near future, but could be set in the now if we had just a little more technology. He really has a great way of taking the current stuff and extrapolating just a little bit further into the future and coming up with some really neat stuff. The current novel has all kinds of ideas for new products that are so clever that I wonder if someone won't try to make some of them work: Garden gnomes to keep track of everyone coming and going in the house, plus messages and anything else; RFID tags on all of your belongings so you never lose anything and roommates don't argue. My favorite is the futuristic Tickle-Me Elmo's that are networked well enough to drive a car. I just want to get enough computing power to someone so some of these great ideas of Doctorow's can come alive. The latest installment of Themepunks can be linked from here, as well as the earlier parts.

The other interesting thing that turned up this week was an interesting presentation about what game styles have been mined out. The idea is that all games can be dividing into different classes depending on the actions or type of game. The part that is of interest to me is that the author of the presentation, master game designer Greg Costikyan, has systematically thought about the current game classes and then attempted to define the unexplored game space. This is the stuff I would love to do if I had the time, or someone would pay me for it. It's a great combination of creativity and systematic thought that just might give someone a new idea for a game, either a video game or something more conventional, or something completely unconventional, which may really be the point.

The theme that has been brewing in my mind, that Cory Doctorow and Greg Costikyan embody as examples above, is the systematic approach and extrapolation of a pattern or idea to new material. It's a skill for the 2nd millennium. I think it is more than data mining, it is about taking what you have found that exists and postulating all the rest of the stuff that doesn't exist but must follow from the conclusions. In a paraphrase from a novel by Charles Stross, not just a better mouse trap but the solution space of all the better mouse traps as well as the algorithm for finding the solutions. How do we use what we know to find not just new things, but the rules for generating all of the new things in that idea space? It boils down to the meta problem of not just finding a new product or idea, but finding the process for generating new products or new ideas. If you find a fish you eat for a day if you learn how to fish you eat for a lifetime.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Hippies in trouble in Havre de Grace

I am shocked, shocked at the intolerance of the people of Havre de Grace towards hippies. Where will hippies ever find a place open enough to tolerate their free lifestyle.

Also, why are the antiques so expensive in this town? We suspect that it is because Havre de Grace is a tourist desination, or possibly its proximity to large cities with people that will pay that much. I bought two paperbacks, it was all I could afford.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Signs signs everwhere signs.

Does anyone else think this sign is ironic? Or is it paradoxical? Or surreal? Please help, I am confused.

Leave your opinions in the comments as to which literary device is employed by the poster of this sign.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Radio is not what it used to be. Copycats all.

It is possible that I am the last one listening to regular FM radio as the rest of my cohort have gone off and gotten satellite radio or an iPod or any number of devices to deliver sound to their ears that is not radio.

First of all Philadelphia is in a radio free zone so no good music is allowed in a 100 mile radius from the city center. My one tolerable radio station in philadelphia, Y100, was switched to urban format on a whim, not due to any financial decision. Y100 now exists only on the internet and actually all of their morning staff has joined WMMR across town.

I used to like listening to some of the morning shows because they would have weird news or talk about what was on TV the night before and I used to think I was getting a little information before some of the rest of the world. This has ceased to be true. I can no longer delude myself into thinking that the weird news and antics are actually thought up by anyone at the radio station. They go onto the internet like the rest of us. The new radio morning shows seem to consist of little more than web browsing during the show and reading it to us, yet they couch it as original material, or worse yet, their own ideas.

I became starkly aware of it when I heard some radio personalities talking about the television show Lost the other day. They were so excited about all of the hidden clues in the show, and then each would pipe up about one and make a comment. They were so fake, you could tell they had gone to the fansites and cribbed the answers. I don't even think they watched the show. I could tell because I have been to fansites (not for Lost, not watching that one) and the commentsthey read on air were about the obsessive details that only the true fans with TiVo's know. Why am I listening to these boobs when I can read web pages myself if I want to.

Perhaps my readers have noticed this phenomena before, but I really had it thrown up in my face that time. I am sure all of you go read Fark, and slashdot, and Boing Boing, and Engadget everyday, but most of you do not go on the radio and claim the work as your own. I have also noticed that all of these popular blogs feed off of each other as well, the same post makes the rounds, which makes hearing it on the radio even more tedious. By the time it has reached the Today Show, it is old, old news.

I am going to have to start using my Treo for its internet radio capabilities and slowly start finding my music somewhere else besides FM radio.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

We got to see Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street on Broadway on Saturday. This Sounheim musical is near and dear to me because I was actually in this musical and produced it in high school, many years ago. I still think I know almost all of the words, much to the chagrin of my theater companions (I did not sing during the show, just in the car ride to and from, and every time I have touched a knife since).

The show was terrific and interesting because they had a very sparse cast and staging. The main cast also sang chorus parts when they were not performing their main roles and, most innovative of all, played the instruments, as there was no orchestra but them. Imagine the talent to sing and play an instrument and then to go on to perform in your main role. The actors were on stage the whole show, moving from chorus to instrument to main part.

The sparse staging was evocative of the inside of an insane asylum. During each scene the actors would take items from the tall shelving behind them to use as the props. The presentation made me think that this was a hospital where the patients were allowed an hour of free time out of their cells and they chose to act out the story of Sweeney Todd as their recreation. That and the actors pouring blood from one bucket to another throughout the whole play, usually when people were killed made for a very creepy production. This musical is just the thing for the Halloween season. I highly recommend it.

Lunch at Sardi's in New York City

We had a delicious lunch before a broadway show at Sardi's in New York on Saturday. Sardi's is the well known restaurant with the caricatures of famous people. Here is an example, I think that is Sammy Davis, Jr. In the bottom left. I had the duck terrine which was very good. They also had a molten chocolate cake and they served it the way I have always wanted someone to serve it - with chocolate ice cream! None of this vanilla stuff.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

40 Years of Vince Patterson Dance Instruction at the DuPont Country Club

Vince Patterson (2nd from right) and his dance lessons are a Wilmington tradition and have been an institution at the DuPont Country Club for 40 years. That boggles the mind. By his own estimate he has taught 8000 couples over the years. Last night we attended a dance (what else) is honor of this anniversary and achievement.

All of us students have enjoyed learning from him because he is not like studio dance instructors. He teaches you how to dance and enjoy yourself, not perform like you are in some dance competition. He admits that his philosophy is to teach us the most steps in the shortest time for the least amount of money. This is the antithesis of the studio dance style of stringing people out for as long as possible and milking then for as much money as possible, promising even the clumsiest oaf that they can be in dance competitions when all most of us want to do is dance to have fun.

I am so glad to have had the chance to learn to dance from Vince, I just hope I remember all the steps!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

New York Public Library not just for Ghostbusters

A week or so ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion of fiction authors at the New York Public library. Not being from New York, my awareness of the library was that it was the first place that the Ghostbusters encountered a ghost and came up with the idea to trap one. Apparently it is known for more than that. Here are the famous lions, and a palm reader plying her trade. The library inspires everyone to read, some read books some read palms. The famous reading room was filled with students and researchers and sunlight on the day we were there. We also got to see a Gutenberg Bible but there was no photgraphy allowed in that room, so you will have to take my printed word for it.

The panel discussion was part of the New Yorker festival and had several authors on it discussing fiction. The most famous author on the panel was Stephen King. I took a blurry camera phone photo from a million miles away but you can see Stephen King in it. The other authors were, Martin Amis, Judy Budnitz, A. M. Homes, and George Saunders. The discussion was interesting but at these panels you always get questions from the audience that are in appropriate to the venue. "Help me write my book" questions, or "This statement is long and rambling and I think I am a big hotshot and I like to hear myself talk but I didn't ask a question" questions. The authors did sometimes call bullshit on the audience questions, but they also tried to answer the good questions. Stephen King had a hard time hearing any of the questions so he answered what he wanted, which was still pretty humorous. Listening to the authors and their discussions of fiction writing has forced me to look for books by the authors that I had not read before.

I think that when you have magazine editors interviewing authors talking about writing and so on, there is always the world-worm Oborous effect of biting one's own tail as the writing community reflects on itself and on the process of reflecting on itself and so on. The most interesting comment of the afternoon was that although none of them have come strictly true, the fictional stories theses authors have produced have presaged current events as our own reality changes faster and faster and becomes even more postmodern. The perfect example given was the story of the passengers of the Jet Blue flight watching themselves on TV circling the airport before they were going to try to land and potentially crash.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Attack of the Giant Snow Globes

I saw this giant snow globe at our local grocery store. It is taller than I am! It is a large inflatable clear plastic sphere with giant inflatable Christmas figures in it just like people have been putting in their yards in recent years. It is so clever that it has a recirculation system to blow "snow" around inside constantly to keep up a Winter Wonderland effect. For only $150 I think it is a steal, though I have no where I would put it.

I stood and stared at it for 10 minutes. I was completely hypnotized by the swirling styrofoam bead snow and the shear audacity of the thing.