Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Maker Faire, part 4: art cars

Many cars and bicycles exhibited at the Maker Faire made you pause and rethink your definition of a car or a bicycle. :-)

There was a morbid, but fascinating roach mobile; a van covered with cameras (http://www.cameravan.com); an assortment of electric cars. Some of them were made by companies that plan to make money off of them, others by hobbyists as tongue-in-cheek projects. Some were converted from cars that run on gas. Some allowed you to look under the hood, others (most) had no hood at all.

Then there was a panoply of wonderful bicycles in shapes of butterflies, grasshoppers, and who-knows-what. I felt like I stepped off into a fairy tale world.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Maker Faire, part 3

There was also some art where the point wasn't so easily found.

Tree of Secrets, dream recorder

For example, the Tree of Secrets, which was a cardboard tree with microphones hanging off of it. You could speak your secrets into those microphones, and they would get recorded. Then you could play them back. I think you could also listen to other people's secrets (thus making it a tree of no secrets, said Steve :-)) When the tree accumulates enough soundtracks, it starts mixing them up. I guess that was supposed to somehow make it more interesting. :-) Another example: a dream recorder (?) that looked like an old, rusty voltmeter from a high school physics lab. You put it near your bed, and record your dreams in the morning. "Record" is too ambitious a word, though, because the only thing you can do with it is press one of the two buttons: "good" or "bad". :-) Also, if I remember correctly, it's connected to the internet, and the needle on its face shows you the proportion of people who are having good dreams versus bad dreams. (Or maybe my subconscious made up this part as it tried really hard to find some meaning in this project. :-)) Even so, this kind of dream evaluation could be shared only by people who have identical dream recorders near their beds. But... how many of them are there? Isn't the dream recorder a one-of-a-kind thing, given that it was created by a graduate student as a course project?

Yes, both of these exhibits were created as course projects by students of a graduate program with some kind of... umm... trendy name, like Interactive Communications, or Interactive Media, or some such. Steve told me I wasn't supposed to see a point in these projects: they were Art. Period. I said it wasn't obvious to me that this program was primarily artistic rather than technical, as the name sounded slightly geeky. Well, Steve shamed me for looking for utility value in this art. Oh well. ;-) Yet I kinda felt sorry for those students. While I do remember having to do graduate course projects that seemed about as useful as shoveling sand from one pile to another (i.e. they did not involve original research, only reshuffling the existing data), I still think they were more meaningful than, say, making a tree of secrets. As I said, I'm not cut out to be an artist. :-)

If you were curious what true randomness sounded like...

Along the same lines, I felt, was Kosmophone by Jerry Chamkis, a "musical" instrument that synthesizes sounds from gamma rays. This device measures frequency, wavelength, or energy (he said those things were interchangeable :-)) of gamma rays that are hitting the Earth at all times, and a synthesizer "translates" those measurements into sounds. By the sound of it, gamma rays hit it at varying intervals averaging about once in a couple of seconds, so the device produces a steady ping-pong-pung of random notes at random intervals. This was the gist of the half-an-hour long talk by Jerry Chamkis. I actually figured out what it was doing after hearing the first 5-10 of these "musical" sounds. The rest were the details about how this instrument was made. I more or less slept through the details, but Steve was interested: his graduate studies in physics were all about chasing elementary particles, so he found some common ground with Chamkis. He had a chat with the creator of the Kosmophone about stuff like what materials you use to make a light-tight casing for your sensitive components. :-) The obvious -- and perhaps the only -- point of Kosmophone, as Chamkis readily admitted, was to give the listener an experience of true randomness. Try as they may, humans can't create truly random processes. But truly random processes do exist in nature, and spectral characteristics of gamma rays hitting the Earth are one of them. So, before I could open my mouth and say to Steve "this could make a really good random number generator on a computer", he turned to me and said the same thing. ;-) Then one guy in the audience said it out loud. Apparently all the computer geeks in the audience had the same thought. Chamkis replied that while that's true, it wouldn't be practical, because the rays hit the Earth way too infrequently. In computer applications -- mostly cryptography -- random numbers need to be generated much faster than a sequence of gamma rays would allow.

So, the projects demonstrated at the Maker Faire were a mixed bag. Which of course means there was a lot of good in it too. There were tons of robots, as I said before, but most of them had artistic rather than utilitarian value. For example: a robobabe/angel, or Marvin Niebuhr's Screaming Babyhead band of robots -- a very steampunky bunch of musicians. If they played any music, it must have been lost in the general din of the exhibit hall, as I couldn't hear anything.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Maker Faire, part 2

Maker Faire in bullet points:

Cute and practical: floating speakers, hidden in Mylar balloons.

Artsy and practical: Stop-Motion Armatures, poseable figures that can be photographed serially to create animation.

Artsy and geeky: thereping.

Geeky and cuddly: robotic dinosaur pets, named Pleo, that have a range of sentient-looking behaviors.

Geeky with a hard edge: Stirling engines.

Quirky technology that has its uses: wood iPods.

Quirky technology that's not useful for anything except to build your character through extreme frustration: bicycle with a hinge in the middle. "You really have to steer it two ways!" said a perplexed guy after making a few wobbly laps on this bicycle. Many people fell trying to ride it.

This peculiar latter is in a category that's worth a separate article: quirky / art cars. And it will have a separate post! But first, some snarkiness. Coming up tomorrow. :-)

And there are even more pictures in my photo gallery.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Maker Faire, part 1

Maker Faire, part 1

Maker Faire is upon us! According to its website, it is a "two-day, family-friendly event that celebrates arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset". In my own words, I'll say only this: who needs Flipside when you have Maker Faire? It has a much higher concentration of quirky technology and art, it's in an air-conditioned building (part of it, anyway), and -- best of all -- there is no techno music! :-)

The Do-It-Yourself stuff exhibited here ranges from technology to art to food (cooking is the DIY of food! :-)), and the exhibits cover every category: from practical, to art-that's-actually-beautiful, to art-that's-kinda-pointless, to practical technology, to technology that has no value except quirk, to technology that has no point at all. Most of the technology demonstrated here only had value as an art piece, however. Or as a proof of concept. There were exceptions, of course. I will cover a bit of all of those categories in a few upcoming posts.

For starters, here is an example of DIY art that struck the sweet spot between beauty and utility like only a few projects at the Faire did: lampshades made of interlocking plastic pieces, here and here.

The overlapping area between art and technology was densely populated by robots created by our own local Robot Group. A robot that unexpectedly appealed to my girly side was Mechanical Flower, created by Denise Scioli and from the Robot Group. The flower's inner petals are made of a steamer insert, identical to the one I have at home. Mechanical Flower's steamer insert dances, opening and closing to the music, slow or fast. Here is a video: 49 seconds, AVI, ~ 24 MB.

The tiny holes in the steamer insert create hypnotizing moving patterns when its "petals" open and close. What an exaltation of a mundane steamer! (To be sure, I don't see mine as mundane. For me it is one of the most beautiful household items I own. Its petalness (petality?) can easily inspire one to think of its potential uses for art. To non-artistic people, like me, this call is barely a passing whisper, but artistic people take things like this and incorporate them into their art projects.

More pictures can be found in my photo gallery. I will keep adding new pictures to it over the coming days.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

An authentication scheme cooked up by a pointy-haired boss

There was this article in Washington Post that reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend via his blog about authentication questions, the kind you have to answer in order to login to online banking systems and such. In this post he pointed out that security questions based on users' wishes, preferences and hobbies were useless. (My, has it been almost a year? It feels like we had this conversation just yesterday.) Well, things have only gone downhill in the security world since then, if this article is any indication.

This Is Your Life*... *As Determined by Confounding Identity-Protection Safeguards

Old authentication systems, as imperfect as their questions were, at least allowed you to select a question and an answer that suited you best (or that was less useless to you than others). But how would you like an authentication system that does not even let you choose the questions? Instead, it asks you your biographical facts that you are "supposed" to know. For example, your great-grandmother's birthday. I wish it was a joke, but it isn't.

How does the authentication system know your great-grandmother's birthday in the first place? To quote the article, "unlike traditional shared knowledge authentications, in which the user picks the test and the answer and regurgitates it with each sign-on, Verid [the company that makes this uniquely egregious kind of authentication software -- E.] vacuums public records for factoids, then tosses them at the user at random."

The birthdays of long-gone relatives are not even the most obnoxious example of authentication questions. Others are, for example, "what was your high school mascot" or "the name of your homecoming queen". So what do you do if you come from a country like mine, where not only high schools don't have mascots or homecoming traditions, but the very concept of high school does not exist (all grades from from first to twelfth are taught under the same roof. You don't have to change schools when you transition from primary to secondary education.) Well, OK, a non-existent homecoming queen of a non-existent high school would not appear in public records, and would not serve as a basis for an authentication question. But if you dared to forget her majesty's name, you are screwed. :-)

The article does address the issue that some people's lives don't follow a typical middle class American route, thus some people don't have, or don't remember, the biographical facts enabling them to answer security questions. What the article does not address, is the invasion of privacy committed by a company that "vacuums up the public records" and collects all the knowledge about you, up to your great-grandparents' names and birthdays.

Only a pointy-haired boss could have come up with this kind of authentication scheme. I just hope that the company I work for -- which happens to write software for online banking -- never comes up with something like this.

The best quote from the article:

"Computers are like very dumb people, but they're very fast at being dumb," says Jason Hong, a professor at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII).

Monday, October 08, 2007

Book review: Tales from the Secret City

I suppose I can't really call this post a book review, otherwise I would have to review each story in this anthology. And I'm not going to do that. So, call it what you will.

"Tales from the Secret City" is a collection of stories of various Austin science fiction and fantasy writers, many of who I've met personally. Many of them don't have a lot of publishing credentials; they are still trying to make their first sale (though some of them have already sold stories, even novels). So I had two good personal reasons for reading this book. I'm always curious to read the work of people I know, and I identify with aspiring writers. :-)

The anthology turned out to be not bad, though I can't say any of the stories struck me as stunningly good. The overall quality is comparable to another anthology of stories by local SF writers -- "Cross Plains Universe" -- and the latter has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award!

It would be too tedious to comment on each story, so I'll mention just the one that was the most memorable to me. (Which is not to say it's the best -- this is just a reflection of my taste, nothing else.) It was "Nothing Personal" by Odessa Cole. Haven't most of us felt that our gadgets have conspired against us? Well, in this story they actually do. Normally, I'm not too fond of technological dystopias, but this tale of a guy trapped in a hell of "smart technology" appealed to me for unusual reasons. Suspecting that his "smart card" deliberately lies to him about his finances, he spends the rest of the story troubleshooting it. This story devotes an amount of loving detail to the troubleshooting process you can't expect from any real-life tech support person. :-)

There is a term "gadget fetish", but I don't think I've ever heard a term "debugging fetish". But if you have the latter, you'll find this story really sexy. :-)

Well, I can't say I always get my kicks out of debugging things. There are lots of technologies out there I wouldn't approach with a ten-foot pole, as their complexity simultaneously scares and bores me. And yet, once I get deeply into something, I do get a thrill out of troubleshooting it. And that's the part of me this story indulged.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

James Morrow "The Last Witchfinder": FACT reading group discussion

Another review of a book by James Morrow!

Everybody started "The Last Witchfinder" by James Morrow. Half of the people finished it. Everybody but one person read James Morrow before. The novel chronicles the life of Jennet Sterne, a fictional 17th century woman. After her beloved aunt and mentor is accused of witchcraft and executed, the 12-year-old Jennet decides to make it her life mission to put an end to witch trials. For that she needs to come up with an incontrovertible argument that would convince everybody that the notion of witchcraft is absurd and impossible. She devotes her life to this grand task, and it takes her on many interesting, even improbable adventures.

Everybody said the book was beautifully written. The prose was full of archaic turns of phrase, yet it didn't seem stilted or artificial. I personally was amazed that the characters' speech consistently sounded like it really could have been spoken three centuries ago. It must have taken some effort for a writer to maintain this prose style throughout a 500+-page-long novel!

The book too realistic for some people

Nonetheless, a few people commented that the book was very easy to put down. It is written in a picaresque form, which is uncommon nowadays, and it may distance a reader from the characters, so that it's difficult to get engrossed in a page-turning way in a book. Some readers admitted having wanted something a bit more escapist at the moment, so they did not continue. One reader said he could not enjoy the story, as good as it was, because it was too realistic. While appreciating the beautiful prose and the philosophical depth of the novel, he "could not forgive" James Morrow for torturing the reader. "I cared about the characters and I really feared for what was going to happen to them. I really figured he was going to kill [the protagonist]. [...] I know a little bit about witchhunting, and just the knowledge of pennyroyal for birth control was sufficient to be tried as a witch. Just herbal practices. There is an estimate that "Malleus Maleficarum" (the witchhunters' handbook) cost the lives from 600,000 to 9 million people. In Europe there were at least 40,000 documented witch trial cases in 5 years. It was unpleasant reality. This book was unpleasant for that reason. It was so hideous. I read SF to escape. If I wanted to find [about real-life horrors], I would turn on the news. [...] It's not that it wasn't well written, I just didn't want to be there, I didn't want to experience this." (Despite that, he read through the end.)

On the other hand, another reader found the witch trial scenes funny at the beginning; a scene where a accused witch is being "floated" even reminded him of Monty Python. However, as he realized the witchhunting specifics described in this book were historically accurate, he started to find them a little disturbing.

I myself admit I found this book very disturbing and emotionally harrowing. It was hard to read about a brave, admirable heroine who risks everything, including her life, for an improbable cause. I was pretty sure that the forces she was up against were going to kill her. I even had to look to the end of the book to see how it turns out, something I almost never do. However, the fast pace of the book kept me engaged. There were a few of us who found the story riveting and did not want to put the book down.

A discussion of the book's philosophical themes

It wasn't just the adventures that kept people absorbed in the book, but first and foremost its philosophical themes. One reader has a special interest in the time period the book is set in, the era when Newton made his great discoveries. He has read biographies of many members of the Royal Society, the salient points of which he generously shared with us. :-) I myself was intrigued by the Newton era when I read Neal Stephenson's "Quicksilver", but in my humble opinion, James Morrow did a better job portraying this historical period than Neal Stephenson. At the very least, I think James Morrow shows us very convincingly how the principles of scientific inquiry came into being -- something "Quicksilver" doesn't do as well.

What is the significance of the book-writing-a-book device?

The narrative in "The Last Witchfinder" is contained in an unusual framing device. The story is presented as if written by another book, Newton's "Principia Mathematica". Interspersed with the main story are Principia's personal reflections. We learn from them that Newton's masterpiece is engaged in a centuries-long war with "Malleus Maleficarum", in which each book tries to destroy the existing copies of the other, sometimes resorting to comical measures, such as sending troops of insects to eat the enemy's volumes. "Principia Mathematica" also admits it's been in love with Jennet ever since it laid eyes on her. One reader said she found those confessions of love very tender, but very weird; and another reader countered: "Hey, people love books -- why shouldn't a book love a person!" The notion of a book as a sentient being and an author of another book is probably the only science-fictional element in "The Last Witchfinder". But even then, it is only a framing device. Other than that, readers noted, the only way "The Last Witchfinder" could fit within the SF/F genre is it if were put it in a "secret history" niche subgenre.

But the book-writing-a-book device isn't merely for grins; in fact, it inspired some of the more interesting discussions in the reading group. One reader wondered, why was this framing device was needed at all? Perhaps because Morrow was trying to make a point that books have lives independent of what their authors intended? He said: "When an author releases the work into a literary world, the author can't say what it means anymore. It means what it means to the reader. Newton's "Principia Mathematica" feels very strongly about the demon hypothesis, even if Newton didn't. And I think Morrow is quite correct that the character's conclusion that Newton's Principia is the death knell of demon's hypothesis is quite true, even though Newton didn't see it that way."

Indeed, Jennet got out of "Principia Mathematica" more than Newton intended: it prompted her to establish the principle of "sufficiency of the world" -- the idea that phenomena of the world can be sufficiently explained by the natural world itself, without resorting to demons and the supernatural.

As for me, I thought the concept of a book as a conscious entity was simply meant to underscore the importance of wars of ideas that have been going on for ...well, for as long as there have been ideas. One reader speculated that the war between rationalism and superstition did not die off in the age of Enlightenment; quite the opposite, it intensified. "Witchhunts began to happen in Renaissance, at a time in human history when we got a greater command of the physical world," he said. "I've long been convinced that religious fundamentalism is a product of Enlightenment, not a reaction to the Enlightenment. Because it was then that we started to take the world literally enough, not as a collection of metaphors. Then we started taking those commands about not suffering a witch to live literally. At the same time, Newton's view of the world really did destroy that."

Regardless of the reasons why James Morrow chose to make "Principia Mathematica" a sentient being, many people in this group are no strangers to a feeling that books have lives of their own. One reader said she had this point made very clear to her at one time during her college days. She was taking a tour of the restricted rooms of her university library. One of those rooms contained one of the early editions of "Principia Mathematica". Suddenly she realized that book was worth more than her life, because in case of fire, the room where the book was would be filled with flame retardant gas, which would kill her.

The protagonist too modern to be realistic... or is she?

A couple of us thought Jennet, while a very admirable and brave character, was a bit too unrealistic for a 17th century woman. She was very independent, treated men as equal and expected to be treated as equal by them. Her notions about women's place in the society were those of a 21st century woman. We found it unlikely that she, as well as her mentor, aunt Isobel, could have been brought up with such modern attitudes, and that they were completely unaffected by expectations of submissiveness and passivity that were beaten into many of their contemporary women. However, one reader, who is better familiar with that time period, said there were a lot of very educated women in the 1600s and 1700s, who wrote books, even very technical books. So while such women were unusual, it's not like they didn't exist.

Personally I have to say I liked "The Last Witchfinder" very much, both because of its beautiful prose and because of its themes: heroism, going against the dominant system of beliefs, trying to single-handedly right monstrous wrongs while pursuing scientific understanding. I think I would have liked this novel just for that, even if it wasn't so well written, even if storytelling wasn't so engaging. But since it has those other qualities too, this book is a real gem. I have only read two books by James Morrow so far, but I think he's going to be my Favorite Writer Of The Year. :-) (Last year's title went to Robert Charles Wilson.)