Tuesday, 28 August 2012

meme goes mainstream

Okay, so the punchline is obvious, but it's still fun!

from Life as I know it

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

Neil Armstrong
20 July 1969.  I remember watching the first moon landing on TV.  Just fuzzy, blurred images and crackling audio, but one of the most amazing, exciting, mind-blowing, uplifting experiences ever. The whole world watched and accompanied Neil Armstrong as he became the first human being to set foot on another planet.

The audio and visuals have improved over the ensuing 40 years.  We now get fantastic pictures from the surface of Mars.

Curiosity leaves tracks on Mars, 22 Aug 2012
Also exciting and mind-blowing.  But these are the tracks I want to see on Mars, and further afield:

Apollo 11 : one of the first footprints on the Moon
And today, in this 40th anniversary year of the last man on the moon, Randall Munroe can update his sobering graphic:

Thursday, 23 August 2012

in praise of waste paper

I have a stack of "rough paper": paper printed on one side but no longer needed, that I keep by my desk for scribbled calculations and diagrams, for when I am thinking.  I've never really considered this, except occasionally to think that I should actually scribble these notes into my daybook as I go, so that they are part of my technical log.  That has always felt wrong to me for some reason.  Now I know why: Venkatesh Rao has the same experience, but understands it:
I can’t really work with ruled paper or blank two-sided paper. Both are pristine resources that I feel guilty about wasting with my manic scribbling of mostly useless thoughts. ...
... the reason I work best with one-sided printed paper is that it has already been bad-wasted. It’s going to the recycling bin anyway. So it is a particularly liberating medium to work with. More than liberating. You can feel virtuous because you are effectively redeeming bad waste.
Yes, exactly this.  I can draw a small diagram in the middle of an A4 sheet, dislike it, discard it, and draw again, and again, with no feelings of guilt (like Venkat, I use other people's discarded paper).  This freedom to redo things is very liberating.  If I was drawing in my daybook, or using some pristine pad of blank paper, I would feel constrained to be more frugal in my explorations.  As it is, I give the paper no thought whatsoever (except maybe a small glow of productivity when I discard a great wodge of it in the recycling bin at the end of the day: look at all that work I must have done!).

Venkat's post is about waste-enabled creativity: "civilizations are defined by the resources they can waste".  He talks about exploration-exploitation tradeoffs, where being able to waste resources allows cheaper, and hence more, trial-and-error exploration, and hence the discovery of potentially better solutions to exploit.

It's not just civilisations.  Biological life can be similarly defined.  Computer Scientists often (incorrectly) assume that biological evolution is a great optimisation algorithm.   This is incorrect for two reasons: (1) it's not "great"; it's wasteful: millions are born to give a varied pool from which a few fit are selected; (2) it's not an optimiser.  Biological life "wastes" enormous quantities of resource (a million cod are spawned so that two may survive to reproduce); it explores the vast evolutionary landscape like mad, and is fantastically creative as a result.

We Computer Scientists love bio-inspired algorithms, because of the (assumed) robustness of biological organisms.  But if only, we often wish, especially when we are being "good" frugal engineers, if only we could have all those lovely biological properties without all that waste.  Hmm.  Maybe in our attempt at software engineering and Artificial Life, the problem is that we are not wasting enough, and that we are wasting the wrong things

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

rough fonts

I was reading the Boing Boing post about fonts that look like graphs. More interesting was the link to "postscript hacks to render slightly differently every time". I followed up, and discovered the Beowolf font family, with parameterised roughness, caused by adding some randomness to the PostScript rendering process:

Beowolf family, from MyFonts 

What's great about this site is the number of different kinds of text you can choose to display the various fonts.  I find the mid-rough R22 style most pleasing to my eye. 

A 2008 post on the Typographica blog gives some interesting historical background to this family.  (There's a blog all about fonts!?!  I may never get anything useful done again...)

This reminds me of "roughness", which is one of Christopher Alexander's 15 "generative properties", from his Nature of Order work, used to produce architectural structures that exhibit "wholeness".  We did some work a while back trying to formalise a few of the other properties, through BlobWorld, and were interested to discover an optical illusion that led to an appearance of roughness emerging.  Rough brickwork, or rough wall alignment, okay.  But rough fonts?  Neat.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

way to discourage footnotes

So, here I am, trying to add a footnote to my Word document (I know, I know, there's my first mistake; I do usually use LaTeX, but...) when I get the following error message:

So, just precisely what is wrong with my "Start at"1 value?  (Aside: I'm encouraged that I can have over 16 thousand numbered footnotes; I'm sure that will come in useful one of these days.  Or I would be encouraged, if I could get even the first one added.  But then I think, why shouldn't I be able to have a footnote numbered 0, or -42?) 

Anyway.  Maybe by "between", they mean "and not equal to"? Probably not, but let's try anyway, just in case:

Gah!  Oh well, I only need one footnote.  Rather than spend time figuring out what it really wants, I'll change the format, and use a custom mark instead:



1 Note the different capitalisation of the "at" in the dialog box and error message.  Sloppy.2
2 Also, note the easy use of footnotes in this post.

Monday, 20 August 2012

complex clouds

A stripey sky, visible yesterday, looking north just after 7pm (BST):

Sunday, 19 August 2012

citation patterns

An academic's contribution to the community is made through publications.  And so we obsessively keep good records of what we have published, and neurotically check out if anyone has noticed.

To this end, I’ve been playing around with Google Scholar, tidying up my auto-generated publications list there. Although I still maintain my own publications page, this separate one is a useful resource, mainly because it includes citation counts and links.

Citation links are good for more than just egoboo and feeding neuroses, honestly! Citations indicate other authors who find my work relevant to them, so it's very likely that their work is interesting and relevant to my own research. It makes sense for me to check them out, and then also check out the other papers they reference, and also their citations, to see if there’s something interesting and relevant to me. Although it is a bit easy to get sucked into a never-ending death-spiral of link following: there’s just too much interesting stuff.

That's the beauty of Google Scholar.  it doesn't just have a list of my papers (a task I can do myself with relatively little effort); it also auto-generates links to citing papers (a task that would be ridiculously time-consuming to do myself).

More than that, it also provides neat little graphs of citations per year. These are quite interesting for publications that are several years old, where patterns have had time to emerge.

The typical pattern shows a peak a few years after publication, then a tail off into obscurity.

Slightly more gratifying is the pattern of a peak, followed by a drop, but then carrying on bumping along at about the same rate.

But the weirdest citation pattern must be to a paper written during my PhD, published nearly 30 years ago. It caused barely a ripple when published (I comfort myself that there was no Web in those days, and hence restricted access to it). But then there was a second (modest) peak of citations after about 15 years, followed by a drop-off. And then there was a third peak, starting more than two decades after publication.

Clearly, a paper ahead of its time!

Saturday, 18 August 2012

now up to silver

Okay, I've wasted spent far too much time on this:

My excuse (if I need one) is that it's 30°C outside, and nearly the same indoors, which as far as I'm concerned is way too hot to do anything more sensible.  (Also, Cut the Rope is such wickedly addictive fun.)

sunlight through leaves

Friday, 17 August 2012

currently bronze

A new Cut the Rope Experiments leaderboard came out today -- I'll have to work hard to maintain my global ratimg once everyone else starts playing!

Friday, 10 August 2012

autumn is early this year

As I was getting dressed this morning, I felt something lightly fall on my foot.  I looked down, and saw something scuttling away.  Tracking it down I found:

These big "house spiders" are seen indoors quite commonly come autumn, once it starts getting a little chilly outside. They are usually seen more rarely indoors in the summer.  However, it's not at all autumnal at the moment. Maybe this one doesn't like the rain?

Sunday, 5 August 2012

tracking down mad dancers, eventually

So, I was looking for the source of the quotation “Those who dance appear insane to those who cannot hear the music”. Googling, everyone says it's Nietzsche, but of course, hardly anyone gives a source. One suggestion I did find was that it comes from The Birth of Tragedy (originally written in 1872), and helpfully included a fairly substantial quotation.  I couldn’t find a source that exactly matched the provided snippet, but I did find one very close:
In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John's and St. Vitus's dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.
     There are men who, from a lack of experience or out of apathy, turn mockingly away from such phenomena as from a "sickness of the people," with a sense of their own health and filled with pity. These poor people naturally do not have any sense of how deathly and ghost-like this very "Health" of theirs sounds, when the glowing life of the Dionysian throng roars past them.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy, NuVision ebook, 2004
However, while tracking this down, I found a different translation:
So also in the German Middle Ages singing and dancing crowds, ever increasing in number, were whirled from place to place under this same Dionysian impulse. In these dancers of St. John and St. Vitus, we rediscover the Bacchic choruses of the Greeks, with their early history in Asia Minor, as far back as Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea. There are some, who, from obtuseness, or lack of experience, will deprecate such phenomena as "folk-diseases," with contempt or pity born of the consciousness of their own "healthy-mindedness." But, of course, such poor wretches can not imagine how anemic and ghastly their so-called "healthy-mindedness" seems in contrast to the glowing life of the Dionysian revellers rushing past them.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy. In Albert Hofstadter, Richard Kuhns, Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, University of Chicago Press, 1964 (p501) (translation, Clifton P. Fadiman, 1927)
And yet another one:
In the German Middle ages, too, ever-growing throngs roamed from place to place, impelled by the same Dionysiac power, singing and dancing as they went; in these St John's and St Vitus' dancers we recognize the Bacchic choruses of the Greeks, with their pre-history in Asia Minor, extending to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea. There are those who, whether from lack of experience or from dullness of spirit, turn away in scorn or pity from such phenomena, regarding them as `popular diseases' while believing in their own good health; of course, these poor creatures have not the slightest inkling of how spectral and deathly pale their 'health' seems when the glowing life of Dionysiac enthusiasts storms past them.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1999 (translation, Ronald Spiers), pp17-18 
One thing that struck me was the sheer variety in these translations. Just pulling our a single phrase (let's take one that has something to do with the original search), shows the great variety of translations possible:
  1. under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing 
  2. singing and dancing crowds, ever increasing in number, were whirled from place to place under this same Dionysian impulse 
  3. ever-growing throngs roamed from place to place, impelled by the same Dionysiac power, singing and dancing as they went 
While we have hordes waltzing, crowds whirling, and throngs roaming, they are all nevertheless uniformly “singing and dancing”. Similarly with the final phrase:
  1. when the glowing life of the Dionysian throng roars past them 
  2. the glowing life of the Dionysian revellers rushing past them 
  3. when the glowing life of Dionysiac enthusiasts storms past them 
Throngs roar, revellers rush, and enthusiasts storm, but all with “glowing life”. It makes one wonder – how much do translators read earlier translations, how much do they consciously decide to change certain phrases and orderings, and why they leave other phrases the same?

But another thing struck me, which was more relevant to my original quest: although close, none of these passages seem to capture the full spirit of the original search topic: “Those who dance appear insane to those who cannot hear the music”.

A link from that original helpful site took me to a discussion about the source being Henri Bergson. The Bergson quote is given in the original French, and in translation, as
  • Il suffit que nous bouchions nos oreilles au son de la musique, dans un salon où l'on danse pour que les danseurs nous paraissent aussitôt ridicules
  • “It is enough for us to stop up our ears to the sound of music, in a room where people are dancing, in order for the dancers to at once appear ridiculous.” 
Henri Bergson, Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique, 1900
Henri Bergson, “Laughter, an essay on the meaning of the comic”, 1900 
Note Bergson says “ridicule” (ridiculous), not “fou” (mad, crazy, wild, foolish).   Nevertheless, this looks closer to the quote than the Nietzsche passage.  So I felt satisfied.

However, whilst searching around for an image of "mad dancers" to enliven this large wodge of text, I came across a website containing a copy of Meyer Levin’s The Golden Mountain (1932), which is “a collection of tales of the Eastern European Hassidic Jews”. It includes the tale of “The Mad Dancers”:
a deaf man passed outside the house; he looked in through the window and saw the people whirling about the room, leaping, and throwing about their arms. 'See how they fling themselves about!' he cried, 'it is a house filled with madmen!' For he could not hear the music to which they danced. 
Now, this seems much closer, and I suspect may be the "true" source. I wonder how much each might have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the earlier publications?

Saturday, 4 August 2012

olympic moon

Full moon rising, as seen through the Olympic Rings hanging from Tower Bridge, London. Taken 3 August 2012.

credit: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor