Monthly Archives: February 2007

I did not know that

Jess Nevins at No Fear of the Future takes us through various historical Lords of the Grain and lands with both feet on Gustav Vasa, and (in a tale that diverges into lutefisk, takes in the surprising [albeit alleged] origins of Madame du Barry’s passion for chocolate, and Diderot’s bon mot that “the potato is righly held responsible for flatulence. But what is flatulence to the vigorous organs of peasants and workers?”) links to a Swedish cuisine summary that includes this delightful factoid:

In one year people all over the world in 40 countries buy 60 000 tons crisp bread. Sweden is the biggest consumer and every Swede consumes 4 kilos of crisp bread every year.

I’m one of the addicts of knäckebröd, plowing through a few cases of the stuff every year (a case of Siljans has 14 units, each with 6 rounds). Great all by itself, even better with cheese or smoked salmon…

Wozniak interview

Over at Jason Scott’s ASCII weblog there’s a transcript of a Coast to Coast radio interview with Steve Wozniak from April 2006. It’s an interesting read on several grounds, but especially for some things it says about Education, and the contexts of family support and teachers and one’s own activities. A few juicy snippets:

Woz: …I lived with a bunch of kids that had engineers for parents. So they had electronic parts around the house. They had parents that could teach us how things worked and how to hook up some of the parts to get some interesting things to happen

…Actually, my whole technical evolution was very much accidents. It was not planned by myself. There were no classes, there were no books, it was all accidental. I would stumble into journals. I would stumble into magazines. I found that was what my interest was. You know what your interest is, and not everybody comes up with the same. And it’s accidentally inspired maybe by the fun I had with my electronics friends I had in the neighborhood… I was one of the math/science stars of the school and we would get the awards and all that, but I was also in electronics class. We had a great electronics class in our high school and the teacher realized that I knew it all and I was just playing pranks and wiring other people’s radios to blow up if they asked me for help…

…So, the teacher said, “You know you’re good at giving pranks.” So he arranged for some help. This is very unusual when a teacher sees a student that could be helped with a lot of stuff that’s not in the school. A lot of teachers will say, “You know what, the education is here in this school and these books and my class,” and that’s all we take responsibility for…

…what I would do is drive up with a friend of mine, Alan Baum, up to Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. And we’d go there on a Sunday. And the reason we’d go there is there’s a lot of smart people that work at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and wherever smart people work there’s open doors. So, we would actually drive to the main building and we’d walk up some stairs and try some doors and eventually we’d find a door open from the outside, and we’d go in. And they had a computer library in there, a technical library. I found computer manuals and there were little cards where you could fill out your name and address and they would send you a computer manual. Sylvania sent me manuals to their computers, …Hewlett Packard would send me manuals to their computers. Digital Equipment would send me theirs. A company started up called Data General and they sent me theirs.

…Fill out the cards, and we’ll send you a manual describing our computer because to get this magazine, back in those days, you were probably an engineer. You are the sort of person who might buy our expensive computers. And I would sit down at home, whenever I had a free weekend. I would sit down and pull out blank paper and just start designing that computer. And if I’d already designed that computer, I would design it again using the latest, newest chips. My dad would get me the chip manuals of the newest, latest chips, and I would design it with fewer parts as a goal. I started making a game out of this, and the game was: how few of chips can I do it in? And I started coming up with tricks in my head as a young high school kid, that I knew that nobody else in the world was doing with chips…

[at University of Colorado] …I wanted to write every program that I could think of. Programs to calculate mathematical tables of numbers, things like Fibonacci numbers, powers of two, these great tables that you’d find in the tables of the books that engineers have to use to do their jobs. And I wrote so many programs, and I could run them three times a day. It was back when you had to type out punch cards, submit them, come back later to the computer to get your printouts and see that it’s done. I would run them three times a day, seven programs each, 60 pages each time, piling up reams and reams of output in my dorm room. And they cut me off. I didn’t realize they had a class budget. I thought, “You take a computer class, you get to write programs.” No. I ran our class five times over budget, which is more than twice the tuition of the second highest out of state tuition university in the country, and I was so scared that my parents would find out that I could never afford to pay that money back. They made it sound like they were going to bill me. So I didn’t try to go back there my second year.

Inspired nonsense

A few days ago I linked to a video of a ukulele number yclept “Monkey’s Brain” and was prompted to hunt down the perpetrators (The Hoppin’ Haole Brothers, who “mix the tropical-bopical sounds of paradise with the energy and rhythm of hot jazz and country swing”), with a CD at CD Baby… so I ordered it and it came. I don’t expect that just everybody will appreciate this sort of thing as I do, but you might try this 2:00 piece of Hosin’ Down the Devil to see if you’re Type A or Type B…

The Eloquence of Alan Kay

Over at if: book there’s a pointer to an interview with Alan Kay (“The PC Must Be Revamped—Now”) that speaks some inconvenient truths. A few outtakes (bolded here and there, for emphasis) that might inspire you to read the whole thing:

Computers are mostly used for static media, basically text, pictures, movies, music and so forth. The Internet is used as a distribution network, so computers are essentially players for this media. This is incredibly useful, but it tends to overwhelm uses that require a much longer learning curve.

When I started in computing in the early sixties, people realized that while the computer could simulate things we understood very well, one of its greatest uses was simulating things that we didn’t understand as well as we needed to. This has happened in the sciences; physicists, chemists, biologists and other scientists could not do what they’ve been doing if they didn’t have powerful computer simulations to go beyond what classical mathematics could do. But it’s the rare person who quests for knowledge and understanding….

[Doug] Engelbart, right from his very first proposal to ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency], said that when adults accomplish something that’s important, they almost always do it through some sort of group activity. If computing was going to amount to anything, it should be an amplifier of the collective intelligence of groups.

…the computing profession acts as if there isn’t anything to learn from the past, so most people haven’t gone back and referenced what Engelbart thought.

The things that are wrong with the Web today are due to this lack of curiosity in the computing profession. And it’s very characteristic of a pop culture. Pop culture lives in the present; it doesn’t really live in the future or want to know about great ideas from the past. I’m saying there’s a lot of useful knowledge and wisdom out there for anybody who is curious, and who takes the time to do something other than just executing on some current plan.

…the dominant operating system architectures that we have are all from the sixties. Basically, the people who do operating systems got used to this kind of layered architecture in an operating system, and they tend to keep on feeding it, even though layered systems don’t scale very well. This is an example of the invisibility of normality. We’re not even aware that we’re accepting most things we accept. Any creative person has to try and force their brain to reconsider things that are accepted so widely they seem like laws of the universe. Very often they aren’t laws of the universe; they’re just conventions.

…The spreadsheet, for example, with a few changes in it, would be thought of as being a highly parallel simulation engine. If you think of the purpose of the spreadsheet being not only to tabulate what did happen, but to give you an idea of what could happen, you would immediately redesign the spreadsheet and integrate it with graphical displays or visualization in a very different way. You would be on the road to a different kind of computer literacy.

(the last point is in the same ballpark with Dan Bricklin’s recent posting)

Cautionary Tales?

Things connect. Sometimes the linkages are obscure, or tolerably tendentious, or simply risible, or maybe they’re just co-incidental. And I suppose sometimes their Moment hasn’t come, and the nascent dots aren’t connected. The last few days have brought onto the stage several threads for which I’m seeking the Nexus. A prize to the reader who can construct it from these bits, each of which can be read as a sort of Cautionary Tale

Digression: Hillaire Belloc was not, perhaps, a very nice fellow, but his Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and Cautionary Tales for Children were staples of my own youth. Consider:

The Dromedary

The Dromedary is a cheerful bird:
I cannot say the same about the Kurd.

The Frog

Be kind and tender to the Frog,
And do not call him names,
As “Slimy skin,” or “Polly-wog,”
Or likewise “Ugly James,”
Or “Gap-a-grin,” or “Toad-gone-wrong,”
Or “Bill Bandy-knees”:
The Frog is justly sensitive
To epithets like these.

No animal will more repay
A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
Who keep a frog (and, by the way,
They are extremely rare).

(end Digression)

The candidates for interconnection: Amédé Ardoin, Thomas Midgely, and Harlan Ellison. Not exactly household words, but all have re-crossed my path lately, so I’m sporting with their possible interlinkage.

Amédé Ardoin came up this morning via Old Blue Bus, one of the music blogs I follow. The link to Two Step de Eunice will probably disappear in a few days, so listen while you can. The specific point of interest of the moment is the Tale of his death, which seems to have several variants:

Ardoin’s death remains shrouded in mystery. One report has him being brutally beaten after wiping his brow with a handkerchief handed to him by the daughter of a white farm owner. According to McGee, Ardoin was poisoned by a jealous fiddler. More recent studies have concluded that Ardoin died of venereal disease at the Pineville Mental Institution.
Craig Harris, All Music Guide)

A cousin of renowned black Creole accordionist Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin, he crossed racial boundaries by performing with noted Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee. However, he stepped too far when at a dance around 1941 he wiped away sweat with a handkerchief offered by a white female. Suffering a terrible beating after the dance, he eventually died of his wounds, emotional and physical, at Pineville on November 3, 1942.

Thomas Midgley, inventor of (1) tetraethyl lead AND (2) freon, came up in an answer to a friend’s email question about global warming. Both inventions transformed the technologies they were developed for (the internal combustion engine, and refrigeration) in the short run, and both of which turned out to be really really really BAD things in the long run. Bits of the story are available here and here and here and here. The story of Midgley’s death (strangled in a device of his own cleverness, contrived to solve the problem of his own physical limitations) makes the karmic point more obvious, if karmic points ever really work that way. But the other spin on Midgley’s work is that our civilization owes a very great deal to the efficiency of the gasoline engine (said efficiency absolutely based upon the high compression engine design that tetraethyl lead enabled) and to the possibility of cooling buildings and refrigerating food –indeed, our civilization is simply unthinkable without those two elements (the same story could be told with any number of other essential technologies). To be sure, our cleverness has found substitutes for both tetraethyl lead and freon, but not exactly “just in time”, and the substitutes themselves are iffy too (e.g., MTBE which succeeded tetraethyl lead as an antiknock compound, and is now being replaced by something else because of its toxicities).

And the third came up because I’ve been reading in Harlan Ellison’s anthologies Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) and exploring who Harlan Ellison was/is and what he’s done. The two anthologies enjoy a reputation as ground-breaking collections –see James Schellenberg’s review as an example. The missing third anthology is the subject of a long-running soap opera which (among other things) provoked Christopher Priest’s The Book on the Edge of Forever –see Amazon reviewers’ comments for more on “a fascinating account of one of the most famous non-books ever not-published”, and note that “Ellison has been severely criticized for neither publishing the volume nor returning control of the stories to their authors, some of whom have since died.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in various corners of the realm of “speculative fiction” (see Wikipedia and a Wikipedia portal, and explore The Internet Speculative Fiction Database and ISFDB Wiki).