Link: Hello Kitty BE@RBRICK iPod

Looking at ads for these toys made me imagine Hello Kitty hanging out with some BE@RBRICKs.

"Sometimes I wish I had a mouth."

"Some of us have mouths. Most of us do not."

"How are we even having this conversation?"

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Book Report: The Legend of Grimjack, Volume One

I have been hearing about this comic book for years. It, along with "Sam & Max", were the great comics which I'd never be able to read because their rights were tangled up in legal limbo.

One volume in to the recently reprinted Grimjack, I am liking it fine. It is a good comic. It is not changing my life the way that "Sam & Max" did, but what could? Ostrander the writer says that he set out to write a hard-boiled barbarian book. He succeeded.

This book does not seem that great. I am not yet sure why people were still talking about it years later. Then again, this is just volume one of the collection. The first dozen issues of Cerebus were nothing special, and they were about a hard-bitten barbarian. But that grew into "High Society", so I guess there is hope for the future of this reprint of Grimjack.


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Book Report: Y the Last Man book 4 (Safeword)

It is another collection of "Y the Last Man" comics by Vaughn, Guerra et al.

There is a dumb story arc which uses a brainwashing attempt to give us a glimpse into the mind of the main character. Why do comic book writers think I am so eager to have a glimpse into the mind of the main character? I suspect that comic book writers are introspective and find the insides of their brains fascinating.

There is a good story arc that has a punk rock girl mechanic in it. It gives us glimpses into the minds of the main characters. I am grateful that it did so while those main characters were gallumphing around doing stuff.


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Book Report: Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures

I enjoyed the Bill & Ted movies back when they came out. When Rob Pfile refers to my apartment's cross-street as "Wyld Stanyn", it cracks me up. It cracks me up every time.

I enjoy Evan Dorkin's comics. But I didn't know about those back when the Bill & Ted movies came out.

So I was glad when Amaze Ink printed the "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures", collecting many comics which Dorkin scripted and pencilled. There is the adaptation of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. There are a few follow-on comics.

I did not enjoy these comics very much. I am glad that the original proceeds from these paid to put food on Mr Dorkin's table so that he could go on to make comics that I like better.

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Book Report: A Rabbit in the Air

David Garnett wrote this book, A Rabbit in the Air, about his experience learning to fly. This book was published in 1932. He calls airfields "aerodromes". He provides cockpit drawings. He provides some description of what it feels like to fly. He mentions a remedy for short-necked pilots.

This book was OK.


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Hiding Data in Metadata

I'm flipping through this telegraphic code book which E. E. Morgan's Sons used for encoding messages long ago. Most of it consists of code words to convey phrases. E.g., instead of sending "one hundred tins", you would send the code word "waver".

But the people using this book used a trick to embed data in their signatures. Only a few people were composing messages. So the person's signature didn't convey that much information. But the people at E. E. Morgan's Sons didn't necessarily sign their names. On different days of the week, you would sign a different name. On Monday, Hargrove would sign his name as "Harford". On Tuesday, he would sign as "Harive".

Thus, they encoded both the signator's identity and the day of the week in the signature.

Does this mean that the telegraph service did not charge money for the signature? Otherwise, I would thingk that they would want to choose shorter names. Does this mean that telegraphs sometimes took a few days to arrive? I don't know. But I am jotting this note none-the-less.

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Book Report: Signal & Noise

Of course you are glad that John Griesemer wrote a novel around the laying of the first transatlantic undersea telegraph cable. But you're also thinking A telegraph book would be far too nerdly to discuss at my book group. I won't bother reading this one.

Well, do not hang back. Dive into this book. Though it is built upon a nerdly subject, it is Literature. Did you notice that capital 'L'? I meant it.

This book has themes running through it. The main characters are obsessed with various signals. One wants to build a cable. One wants to paint a mural. One wants to speak with the dead. One wants to achieve astral projection. There is a theme of tricksters using do-nothing impressive-looking new-fangled devices to fool the public.

The reader stays amused: There are quirky characters. There are raunchy scenes. There is triumph, treachery, art, and arson. This book has everything you want, and nothing more.

All I want now is a sequel. Maybe taking place a few decades later, set around the retrieval and repair of a faulty undersea telegraph cable. It could have loving, detailed descriptions of some advanced grapnels. And characters obsessed with dredging up pieces of their past and trying to make them right. That would be awesome.


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Book Report: The Phenomenon of Life

Summary: This is a good book if you skip the first four chapters, the last chapter, and half of the appendices.

Christopher Alexander is famous as the honcho behind A Pattern Language. A Pattern Language described a set of architectural techniques. It was organized very well. Computer geeks liked it--we recognized that this was a good way to organize a bag of tricks. Do you remember that the introduction to the computer science book Design Patterns mentioned that some architect came up with the idea of design patterns? Christopher Alexander is that architect. He released a big four-volume work, The Nature of Order, which is supposed to provide the foundation for his previous works.

I read volume one: The Phenomenon of Life. It was tough going, but it was worth it. I suspect that Alexander would be disappointed with what I got out of this book: some rules of thumb for judging aesthetics. I was supposed to get a New Way to Undersand the Wholeness.

Although this may sound absurd to ears trained in the last few decades of scientific orthodoxy, I shall try to show that this conception is more profound scientifically, that it has a solid basis in mathematical and physical understanding of space, and above all that it does provide us with a single coherent conception of the world, and of what we are doing in the world, when we try to make the world "alive."

--The Phenomenon of Life, Christopher Alexander
introducing some attempts at rigorous definition

These are scientific facts based on the research done by captive supergeniuses working in controlled conditions with test mice and test mice dressed like tiny wizards.

--Dorkstorm: the Annihilation, Seanbaby
introducing a similarly rigorous work

Alexander distinguishes between good places and bad places by saying that good places have more "life". He spends the half of this book describing the nature of life. The Dead Milkmen tell us: "Philosophers try to bring me down: 'What's the meaning of life?' Go kill a cop then drink 'til you drop; baby that's my advice in a f&#*ed up world." In other words, you should not attempt to be very rigorous or mathematical when defining life. Yet Alexander attempts to be rigorous. He spends several pages telling us that he will teach us a new way to see the world. He says that we need to understand the Wholeness. Yes, he capitalizes it. He provides an appendix which attempts to define this Wholeness. I claim that it's never defined: the appendix shifts the vagueness around, but the vagueness never leaves. The attempts at rigor are long-winded.

And yet, if you can skim over the rigor, he presents fifteen structural features of things which have life. In other words, fifteen things to keep an eye out for when considering the form and function of a place.

  • levels of scale
  • strong centers
  • boundaries
  • alternating repetition
  • positive space
  • good shape
  • local symmetries
  • deep interlock and ambiguity
  • contrast
  • gradients
  • roughness
  • echoes
  • the void
  • simplicity and inner calm
  • not-separateness

He provides illustrations of places and natural objects which do or do not possess these properties. He discusses how each of these properties can help a place. I was glad that I read this part.

I am not sure why Alexander wants to present his ideas encumbered with so much rigor. A well-designed, well-described, well-chosen, well-organized Bag of Tricks is more useful than a Humbug Theory of Architectural Technique. That's how A Pattern Language inspired a generation of computer hackers to rip it off. If this book's fifteen properties don't have a Grand Theory to back them up, but if they work, are they still worth studying? Of course they are.

There is a good story buried in the footnotes, in which we find our heroes battling forces of oppression:

In order to help the city of Nagoya, my colleagues in Japan made a survey in which 100 family members were asked to describe their feelings about the kind of housing I had proposed, compared with the 14-story apartment buildings that are usually built at the same cost and density. ...Once this survey was made it showed overwhelmingly that the families questioned prefered [my kind of housing].

However, it was surprisingly hard even to get permission to make this survey in the first place. Public agencies in Nagoya went to some trouble to prevent this survey from being made at all by interfering with practical details of the survey process, and by trying to change the questions. ... (Details of their attempt to prevent this survey from taking place are given in Christopher Alexander and Hisae Hosoi, The Precious Jewel, forthcoming.

That sounds like it's going to be interesting.

Then, in Appendix 3, we get to see Alexander bully a roomful of students into seeing the universe the way he claims that people naturally see the universe:

It is not always easy to see the wholeness which exists in the world. ... I was astonished, many years ago, to find out, in the course of an experiment I was doing with Radcliffe students, that most of them did not see the wholeness of simple patterns. They saw, instead, a distorted picture of these patterns, viewed them with arbitrary intellectual devices rather than responding to the deeper wholeness that was present in them. I found out, too, that it took immense effort to dissuade them from their distorted cognition, and to help them to see wholeness as it is. ...

Read this book and you might learn some new ways to think. Just don't get so snowed under by rigor that you believe that these are the only ways to think.

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I recommend this photo.


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Outsourced the "New" page

I started using the Blogger service to maintain this page. Now you can use your favorite RSS aggregator to keep track of how rarely I write!


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Under-utilized Set

The next time I'm called upon to provide names for a set of [computers|meeting rooms|secret projects], I would like to use names of famous carnies and freaks.

  • jojo
  • chang
  • eng
  • petomane
  • tomthumb


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Site Update: Fave Reads

I finally figured out my Fave Reads of '04. Usually I upload those on New Year's day. But this year I was in Seattle. And then I went to Tahoe. And then I started a new job. Hey, at least I finished it before the Chinese New Year. Anyhow. Added some REL="nofollow" links to Tanya's comment so that I could link to some relevant pages without boosting their PageRank. Man, those pages are shady. Added a link to Steven Huang's blog.

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