Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Steampunk party

Last Monday S and I went to the Steampunk party "Futures Past", thrown by EFF and some other organizations as part of the South By Southwest conference. S had to be dragged down there kicking and screaming, although I thought he would enjoy the robot exhibit by the Robot Group, who demoed several new cool robots (new being those I haven't seen at their earlier exhibits). But S wasn't impressed with robots-as-art. He thinks robots are only cool if they do something functional. Oh well. I myself went there primarily for the costumes galore. Steampunk costumes! Victoriana with a techy twist! Yum. Mile after a square mile of lace-up boots and fishnet stockings, and much more.

An upright robot - bubble on wheels

An upright robot - a bubble on wheels, made by The Robot Group of Austin, Texas

I'm reporting on this event only now, because it took me this long to sift through the 200 pictures I took and post them on my photo gallery.

I got a glimpse of Bruce Sterling and his wife Jasmina. And somebody played a theremin, of which I dutifully made a video, but my buggy camera often causes the audio be out of synch with the movie; and while that's tolerable in baby videos, it makes a theremin video completely pointless, since you can't see the correspondence between hand movements and sounds. Too bad the sounds he made weren't very melodious; it was, I'm afraid to say, a rather tuneless improvisation. I've heard some theremin performances where it played actual music.

But the biggest attraction was a duo of two young women acrobats, Popsy Purvy. The name very well describes what they do. Since a picture is better than a thousand words, I'll say no more. The pictures are at the bottom of my blog post at this link. I also took a couple of videos of their acts, embedded below.

Monday, March 12, 2007

"Accelerando" by Charles Stross: FACT reading group discussion

On January 23, 2007 the FACT reading group discussed "Accelerando" by Charles Stross. Here are the main observations made at the discussion. These links lead to the full write-up of the discussion on my SFragments website.

"Accelerando" is too discontinuous to be called a novel. The stories that make up "Accelerando" revolve around the same set of characters, but there is no plot arch to unify them. That can be a good thing, too. The characterization was mediocre. But it was offset by innovative ideas, which "Accelerando" is chockfull of. The readers were most impressed by: Charles Stross' portrayal of the technological Singularity; his answer to the Fermi paradox; his humorous treatment of lawyers, spam, pyramid schemes and other life's small annoyances.

Charles Stross in the British SF panel at ArmadilloCon 2007
Charles Stross in the "Current Trends in British SF" panel at ArmadilloCon 2007

Some people thought that parts of Stross' futuristic vision were too sketchy. Especially Economics 2.0, which, many readers agreed, was explained in no more than a hand-waving fashion.

Everybody acknowledged that this book is not for mass audiences. Its extremely high "geek quotient" prompted comments such as these:

-- It definitely is rapture of the nerds.

-- You have to have a background in sciene fiction to understand it. Mainstream book clubs shouldn't read it. Stross is not pandering. Well, he's pandering to a geek audience. If you're not reading science fiction and you're not getting any of this, he doesn't care.

-- It's definitely written for a SF computer nerd. Specifically, computer science SF nerd. 90% of reference he makes are computer science references that's he's playing around.

Somebody also observed that despite being set in the future, Accelerando is very closely tied to today's technological and pop-culture landscape: "I'm not sure you can understand if you don't read Dilbert and Slashdot. I'm not sure if a bright person who's not from that community would understand it." Which may be seen as a drawback for this book, as it unnecessarily narrows down the audience that might be able to enjoy it otherwise. For the same reason the book may not age well, as in 20 years Dilbert references may be obsolete.

Friday, March 09, 2007

BarCamp Austin, Friday night

Tonight I went to BarCamp Austin. The schedule said there was supposed to be a BarCamp party at 8 pm. So I got off from work, picked up E from day care, had a bite to eat, and headed there, to the Bourbon Rocks bar downtown. I got there at around 8 pm, and discovered I was too late. A handful of people who were left at the bar told me the main event was already over. There was something going on earlier today, some kind of presentation. Those who hadn't left yet milled around a little, and then a bunch of them headed out for dinner. They said they were going to come back later and then there was supposed to be some drinking and geeking out. A few stragglers left at the bar were staring at a laptop screen where some guy explained to them finer points of Drupal caching.

A Drupal developer named David (right) at BarCamp 2007
A Drupal developer named David (right) at BarCamp 2007

So far, the only thing I've learned at this so-called "unconference": Drupal does not rhyme with PayPal. It's pronounced more like DROO-ple!

Even though most BarCampers had left, I still got to talk with some people who were hanging around. In particular there was one guy who showed me (like everybody there, he had a laptop with him) a mind-mapping system he has created for himself. Of course, it does not map his entire mind, only the part that's involved with various IT projects. I didn't get the details of it (it was very loud; the bar was filling up with non-BarCamp people, and a live band started to play) that it had something to do with mapping plain English words to emacs macros; it enabled him to conjure code snippets for various common programming tasks, therefore freeing him from keeping those code snippets in his memory; that and a lot more -- though I'm not sure what else. I have this problem too -- of remembering the detailed "how-to's" of various programming tasks, and it was a relief to know that other people have the same problem as me, and interesting to see how different are each person's ways of coping with it. I do suspect, however, that each person's solution is very idiosyncratic and suitable for that person's mind, but less so for anybody else's.

Right: Shane, the guy who created a mind-mapping system, a.k.a. 'emacs wiki' on his laptop. BarCamp 2007
Right: Shane, the guy who created a mind-mapping system, a.k.a. "emacs wiki" on his laptop. BarCamp 2007

This guy called his system an "emacs wiki"; he said that it was wiki-like in nature even though he created it before he even heard of wiki.

It was also unexpected to discover at the end of our conversation, that this guy was somebody I knew from a certain mailing list. "Knew" in the sense of having read his posts, but never met him in person.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Movie review: Pan's Labyrinth

Steve's mother is visiting us since last weekend, and she is kindly letting Steve and I to go out in the evening as often as we want to, while she takes care of Erika. So last weekend we did something as exotic as going to the movies. If one sees at most two movies a year, it's hard to decide which movies are worthy of that honor. So I make like a sheep and go with those that have generated the most buzz, provided their plot or genre appeals to me. The one movie this year that has penetrated the little text-only bubble I live in, was "Pan's Labyrinth", so I dragged Steve out to see it. (By the way, why is the title translated "Pan's Labyrinth" and not "Faun's Labyrinth", if the creature after which it is named is referred to as a faun? Even though it's the same thing.)

Yes, it justified the buzz. It was a highly watchable movie. The magic in it is pretty much of a generic Harry Potter-like kind, but the mood / plot is diametrically opposite. I wouldn't categorize it as a fantasy movie, though. In my opinion, a work belongs to a genre of fantasy or science fiction if it suggests that the events depicted in it are reality, rather than just happening in somebody's imagination. In "Pan's Labyrinth", it is pretty clear that the fantastic events are happening in the protagonist's imagination only, as they don't affect anyone else in the real world. It becomes apparent that in the near future she'll probably find out that all those things she imagined were not real, unless... there is no near future for her. And so the real world and the fantasy world were reconciled in the only way that was possible. In that sense the plot was quite predictable. But despite its tragic ending, this movie indeed provided a Very Satisfying Viewing Experience.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A very unusual facial

Mykel and Paul (Steve's and my friends from the ACA) have this hobby, live-casting, where they make a cast of somebody's face or other body parts, fill it with water putty and turn it into a sculpture. Then they make masks based on that sculpture by way of vacuum forming. Mykel wanted to practice making face casts, and she asked if she could practice on me. I happily obliged -- it's not every day that you get to experience something like that. So, last weekend Mykel did a cast of my face. The technique they use is to cover the "victim's" face with alginate -- gooey stuff that quickly sets and captures your facial features wery well. Too well, as we'll see later. Then when it sets, they put plaster on top of it. The purpose of plaster is to solidify the mold, because alginate alone, even when it's set, is too soft / wobbly.

The process made me feel a little more claustrophobic than I would like.

When I say they cover your face with goo, I mean they cover everything, including your eyes (which are, of course, shut), and your mouth. The only hole left open in your face is your nostrils, and only because you have put straws into them prior to casting, otherwise you wouldn't be able to breathe. As one can imagine, having your eyes and mouth glued shut by a thick layer of goop feels a bit disconcerting. Claustrophobic, even. The catch is that anxious or not, you are supposed to maintain a relaxed, pleasant facial expression. Alginate is extremely sensitive to your facial features, it captures every tiniest detail of your skin, including fine lines, pores and zits. Soooo, if you frown or scrunch your eyes, your mask will feature ridges and valleys in the corresponding places. It was a tough order for me and I didn't do well at it, so the results of my cast were a bit disastrous, as we'll see later.

It doesn't help that I can't breathe through my nose

Fortunately or not, the first time Mykel applied alginate to my face, it set too quickly, before she could spread it completely. So she had to take it off and try again, using colder water to make alginate mixture. During the first try I realized I won't be able to breathe the whole time (close to an hour) through the straws in my nose. I have trouble breathing through the nose for long periods of time. Paul and Mykel addressed this problem by making a mouthpiece for me corrugated cardboard that allowed me to breathe through my mouth. (The little tunnels in the corrugated cardboard serve that purpose very well.) However, in the end it turned out that it kind of ruined the cast: it was way to big to allow me maintain a natural shape of my lips. Paul and Mykel did not have experience with mouthpieces: all the people they've done casts off were able to breathe with only the straws in their noses. After the alginate was set (which took about 5 minutes this time), Mykel applied plaster to my face. The more plaster is applied, the heavier the mask feels (plaster is heavier than alginate); also, while a layer of alginate on your face still lets you see the light in the back of your eyelids, plaster shuts the light out completely, and you are left sitting in total darkness. It made the claustrophobic feeling a bit more intense. Fortunately, the darkness / heaviness increases gradually, so you have time to adjust to it.

The result was not flattering

Once plaster was set (or "cured" -- the word Mykel used) I finally got to peel the mold off my face. I could hardly wait for that moment. Not so much to see the intermediate product, as to be free again! To see the light! Then Mykel mixed some water putty and poured it into the mold. It quickly set. Then she took the cast -- the water putty product -- out of the mold, and I finally got to see the likeness of me! As one can see, my eyes are scrunched and I look like I'm about to vomit. The vomiting effect is due to the mouthpiece I was holding in my mouth for breathing. We concluded it was way too big. To preserve a natural shape of a person's lips, a much, much smaller, discrete mouthpiece would be needed. The best thing, of course, would be to go without it and just breathe through the straws in the nose, which is what Paul and Mykel did when they made casts of each other's faces. Since I can't do that very well, I'm probably not a good candidate for a face-casting model. The scrunching of the eyes is, of course, due to the difficulty maintaining a relaxed facial expression in these circumstances, as I said above. The instinct that screams "I'm being burried alive!" in your head is pretty hard to shut up. More pictures of face casting can be found in my blog post documenting the facecasting process.