Site Update: Shinteki Untamed with the Lester Tang Conjecture

Uploaded a write-up of the Lester-Tang Conjecture's Experience at Shinteki Untamed. That is, I wrote about a puzzle hunt.

It's a big week for puzzle hunts. There is gobs of new info at the Genome Game website about that Game of last year. There is hope for a fun Weekend at Burni's early this summer. Last weekend I solved puzzles for 24 hours. (The hardcore players went longer.) This morning, I found some Hash House Harrier spoor in downtown Mountain View. Remember, folks: if we all work together, we can make the world a much more confusing place.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part five (last (whew!)))

Two last essays in Cyber China...

Ngai-Ling Sum: Informational Capitalism and the Remaking of "Greater China": Strategies of Siliconization

This interesting paper talked about how various governments try to attract high-tech industry. I got a lot out of it; it discussed many bits of news that I hadn't seen before. (Must remember to keep an eye on Ngai-Ling Sum.) What did I learn? Lots of young Taiwanese folks are moving to Shanghai where there are more work opportunities. Of course, the Taiwanese government is not pleased with this flow. Various governments try to foster high-tech industry by building business parks. This ties in to corrupt real estate developers, sweet deals, and favoritism. Taiwan has done this, Hong Kong has done this. There was a fair amount about software/content piracy--there are a fair amount of pirates in China who aren't in it for the money. But many of the sellers are kn it for the money.

Aihwa Ong: Urban Assemblages: An Ecological Snese of the Knowledge Economy

This paper seems to say that various organizations are setting up liaisons, and this helps infomration to flow. Actually, I never figured out what this paper is trying to say. Here's a sentence from the conclusion: "In ambitious Asian cities, assemblages of multiple social logics, including neoliberal rationality, depend upon space-making mechanisms that extend the technological space beyond the metropolis." I am willing to believe that there is a statement of fact buried in that sentence somewhere, but I am too lazy to dig it out. In the end, I was too lazy to make sense of this paper.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part four)

Two more essays from the book Cyber China

Barry Naughton The Information Technology Industry and Economic Interactions Between China and Taiwan

This article had an interesting factoid. A large part of investment in China high-tech comes from Taiwan. But this is illegal. So, in fact, a large part of investment in China high-tech comes from unmarked accounts in the Cayman Islands, Virgin Islands, Samoa, Bermuda, and Panama. So Taiwan doesn't want to get engulfed in China. Yet Taiwanese manufacturers elbow each other out of the way to do deals to get cheap Chinese engineers and assemblers.

Tse-Kang Leng Global Networking and the New Division of Labor Across the Taiwan Straits

"Made in China, by Taiwan". This paper looks at some of the strange relations that come up when Taiwan and China do business. There are a lot of little Chinese startups. They often rely on Taiwanese VC firms. But Taiwan still has heavy restrictions on doing business with mainland China. You don't want to be too open with a country that wants to engulf you. Dell wants to do business with mainland China, so Dell moved a business center from Taiwan to Hong Kong--because the Taiwanese restrictions were too tight. Taiwan is stuck with a difficult balancing act.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part 3)

Yet more essays in Cyber China...

Patricia Batto; Government Online and Cross-Straits Relations

This paper gives an overview of some China- and Taiwan-related web sites.Something interesting perhaps fell out of that. I didn't catch it, though.

Chin-Fu Hung: The Internet and the Changing Beijing-Taipei Relations: Toward Unification or Fragmentation

Here's a new phrase for your enjoyment. I just coined it: "regurgitated snake oil." When reading about the internet, you need to be on the look-out for snake oil. Some con artist needs to justify his bogus business plan. So he waves his arms and talks about a "new economy." That's snake oil. When other people fall for it and start spreading the meme of a "new economy," that's regurgitated snake oil.

This paper is regurgitated snake oil. And it's wordy. Check this out:

My main research questions pose: (a) how and to what extent this new Information Technology (IT) of the Internet might reshape cross-straits relations; and (b) to which trafectory would it lead: to unification or fragmentation? These are two primary research questions that this chapter endeavors to answer. It takes as a premise in this research chapter that, in order to elucidate contemporary global political and economic phenomena with particular reference to cross-straits relations, a deeper understanding of the new media--Internet as well as exploration of Internet's impacts are critical, if not necessary.

What does this mean? I think it means, "This chapter addresses two questions: (a) how much does the Internet affect cross-straits relations; and (b) which way? Actually, this chapter addresses only one of those questions. I assume the answer to (a) is 'plenty.' I assume this because I've chosen it as my research focus, so if that's wrong, I might as well go home."

Did you notice that my wording took only 2/3 the space and yet conveyed the same information? That's because I'm not trying to lull you into a sense of complacency before I reveal that I've been drinking snake oil.

This paper's waves of verbiage had almost rocked me into alpha state when I suddenly realized that it was quoting Nicholas Negroponte. It did not quote him ironically, not as an example of a cobbled-together ball of buzzwords meant to fool credulous millionaires into throwing money at the MIT Media Lab. This quoting happens more than once. It was all I could do not to throw the book on the ground and attack it with a hatchet. Only two things stopped me: (1) it was a library book, and (2) I had no hatchet.

This paper was not very good.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part two)

Notes on a couple more chapters from Cyber China:

Fran├žoise Mengin: The Role of the State in the Age of Information

This paper mentioned a few topics: hackers, Taiwan, Democracy. It implied that these topics had some importance to the idea of government in China. I never figured out what the point was, though.

Christopher R. Hughes; Controlling the Internet Architecture within Greater China

For me, this was the most helpful paper in the book. I didn't learn many new facts, but this paper provided good analysis. If you've read Slashdot for the last few years and paid attention when people wrote about the Great Firewall of China, if you know what ICANN is and wonder how it deals with paranoid governments, if... Uhm, anyhow, this paper neatly weaves together several things I'd read about. It helped me to see some trends that I hadn't seen. +5 Insightful. Must keep an eye on Christopher R. Hughes.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part one)

This book is a collection of papers about the intersection of society and computers in present-day China.

Karsten Giese; Speaker's Corner or Virtual Panopticon: Discursive Construction of Chinese Identities Online

Between the rough translation and the academic mumbo-jumbo, I did not understand much of this paper. As near as I can tell it says that in China, as in other places, computer users created personae for their internet interactions. Maybe he says that this contributed to a rise of individualism opposed to Chinese Communist Party collectivism? He says some vague things about how the government monitors the network. To evade government censorship, people on BBSs and forums will split a single message up amongst several posting. I guess the idea is that no one posting will contain too many dangerous keywords.

David A. Palmer; Cyberspace and the Emerging Chinese Religious Landscape--Preliminary Observations

This paper presents two interesting cases.

The first of these is about Daoism online. A Daoist temple in Hong Kong, the Feng Ying Seen Koon, produced a web site about Daoism. Other Daoist temples did not produce web sites. Now the Feng Ying Seen Koon temple is rising in authority--because people looking for information on Daoism online find their information first. Now other temples want to create web sites.

The other case is that of the Falun Gong. This was interesting to me because I knew almost nothing of the Falun Gong. The few times I got literature from them, it was always pretty vague, which I took as a bad sign of cultishness. Learning more about them from this paper did nothing to change this impression. Their leader disseminates exercise regimes and orders to his followers over the internet. The CCP doesn't like them.

(This is getting pretty long for a blog post. I'll write about other papers in this book later.)

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Ask Not For Whom the Klaxon Peals

As I stepped up to the library exit, the stolen-book alarm sounded.

I stepped back from the door and waited for some nice librarian to wave to me, to tell me to open up my backpack.

But no nice librarian waved to me. After a few seconds, I stepped up to the exit again, setting off the alarm again.

I stepped outside.

I had just checked out Kevin Mitnick's Art of Deception, a book about cracking security systems.

I kept walking, thinking, M_____ D_________, "master hacker," rides again! I just totally evaded that alarm. That was kind of funny.

Then I thought, No, they let me go. That alarm just told the FBI to commence tracking. That was less funny.

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Site Update: Photo, Comments, Geo

Happy Pi Day! I made some little site updates, no biggie.

Tom Lester took a nifty photo of me, so I added a thumbnail link at the Portrayals page.

New messages on the comment page.

GeoURL snapped out of its coma. The Mapper.ofDoom is pretty cool. These inspired me to sprinkle latitude/longitude information into the Lyon Street photos and Justice Unlimited write-up. I guess that doesn't really count as updating this site. Rather, I was providing more data to the GeoURL and Mapper.ofdoom sites. Whatever.

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Book Report: Ready Made #16

I read an issue of Ready Made, a magazine for crafty re-users and recyclers. I am not sure what I think about it. It is witty and amusing. It was inspiring to read instructions for making furniture from leftover pallets and planters from just about anything.

On the other hand, I have plenty of furniture, and more planters than I need.

In the end, I felt like I'd fallen for a lifestyle-porn magazine. While I was reading, I fantasized about living in my green loft which I was filling with dream furniture. But when I looked up from the magazine, I was still in my cramped studio apartment.

I ruined my raincoat recently, planting trees in Oregon. Maybe someday soon Ready Made will have an article telling how to make a raincoat out of, say, plastic produce bags and surplus beeswax. That would be awesome. But I don't know that I'll keep reading their magazine in the faint hope of such an article.

Meanwhile, I could make a poncho out of a plastic garbage bag, if only I had a plastic garbage bag. But I don't. Good thing it's not raining today.

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Book Report: Juked Vol. 3 Fall 2004

This is a collection of short pieces lovingly skimmed off the top of Juked. So I'd already read these. I guess I got juked. One good story: Public Access by David Gianatasio.

You can buy this at Cody's.

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Book Report: Chicago Stories

When I bought this Cometbus book, I didn't realize that all of the stories had already appeared elsewhere. But I had forgotten the stories, so it was fun to read them all again. I felt like a bozo shelling out money for stories I'd already read, even though the Megan Kelso cover evoked the comfort of a favorite diner. Really, I should just read through my back issues some time.

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Book Report: Earth Abides

George R. Stewart wrote Earth Abides, a story in which about 9999 out of every 10000 humans is wiped out by a big plague. What will happen afterwards? Will our hero preserve civilization's triumphs in the face of barbaric apathy? This book was a lot of fun.


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Book Report: The Process of Creating Life

The Process of Creating Life is the second book of Christopher Alexander's Nature of Order tetralogy. That is, this is a book that is Alexander's theory of the universe and how this nature should guide us in making buildings.

Summary: The first half of the book tells you that an incremental plan/build cycle is good. This is good advice, but it gets lost in the mumbo-jumbo. With this good advice in mind, skip ahead to section 10, part 9. Now start reading--the rest of the book is still about 50% mumbo-jumbo, but the rest is good--there are case studies, and you can learn from them. If you read nothing else in this book, read the appendix. It is one long case study, and has some good stories.

Enough with the summary, already.

This book feels like an update on his The Timeless Way of Building in that the message is: Don't try to plan everything out ahead of time. Instead, alternate between building and planning stages. Maybe this means that you won't know what your second floor will look like as you work on the first floor--but this uncertainty is worth it since it allows you to make decisions while standing on the site of the second floor.

He points out that this is not the normal way of doing things. Most architects try to plan out everything in advance. The results are often ill-fitted to the building site and don't work together well.

OK, so that's pretty much the same message as The Timeless Way of Building. What is new?

The first part of the book combines this incremental approach with the life-giving structural properties of The Phenomenon of Life. Alexander creates a napkin doodle by applying these features incrementally, always preserving symmetry. This is very pretty. It seems doubtful that one could apply this process towards making a building/town/whatever. Or, rather, I can not see how one could use this process to steer a building plan towards something good versus towards something bad.

Oh, wait, before that he talked about how growth works in biological systems. This section is also very pretty. I think the lesson we're supposed to take away from this is that things don't grow as if they were being squirted into an injection mold. They grow--they grow larger, and they grow more complicated. They grow at different rates in different parts. This is very pretty. It seems doubtful that one could apply this process towards making a building/town/whatever.

Then there is a lot of complaining about designs by other architects. Of course, Alexander can not just say, "I didn't like it." Instead, these structures could not have been created by a sequence of Wholeness-preserving application of the Properties. Except that some of them could have been. How can we explain these away? Well, these could have been created by iterated transformations based on the properties--but only if those transformations happened in the wrong order. And who can say what this wrong order is? Christopher Alexander can, of course. But he can not explain it.

He tried to explain it to a student. He told the student to first choose the most important part of the design, to start with that and get it just right. And not to start working on the next part of the design until the first part was right. So that determines the order, right? Maybe. Alexander describes stepping through this process with the student. Alexander asked the student which was the most important part, and the student answered, and Alexander said, OK, work on that part. Then Alexander asked, what is the next most important part of the design? And the student answered, but Alexander did not agree with this answer. And so Alexander said "Really? Is that really the most important part?" And he was eventually able to bully the student into backing down. The student rattled off some other guesses until he found one that pleased Alexander. And thus the process continued.

Alexander does not phrase it that way, of course.

I do not doubt that the resulting design was good, but obviously it's not so easy to determine what the right order of transformations should be.

There are some photos and descriptions of good buildings and places. Alexander points out some modern ones. I guess if I read more architecture theory books, I'd know that Alexander's critics accuse him of being a Luddite or something. Fortunately, I have no plans to read much more architecture theory.

That's the gist of the first half of the book. It had a pretty low signal-to-noise ratio.

Fortunately, it gets better. In the second half of the book, there are some good case studies. One thing I learned from them: if Alexander uses those 15 structural properties that he laid out in The Phenomenon of Life, he does so only unconsciously. Which suggests that one should not read The Phenomenon of Life.

There is a case study of the Julian Street Inn in San Jose. Here we see a series of sketches in which the plan takes shape. You can see the centers form, and Alexander talks about how he made decisions. It's by feel: he creates "strong centers". He creates a place with a "living feel". That is, he does not describe his process in a way that helps the reader to make these decisions. But the sketches help a lot--showing which parts of the plan took shape in which order.

There are some summaries of pattern languages for different places. Though these summaries mostly only provide lists of pattern names, it is interesting to see what variations of pattern language are useful in different places and cultures.

Chapter Fifteen "Emergence of Formal Geometry" has more site sketches and pretty pictures. Here, we are not taken through so many steps of the initial planning, but there are some. Again, the fifteen properties do not appear. Actually, he does rattle off some of them when he talks about creating a grid, but in a way that suggests that one can use those properties to justify anything.

A scary story for the computer geeks in the audience:

When I described the Pasadena apartmnet-building sequence and other examples to a prominent computer scientist in Silicon valley he said to me, with an astonished look on his face: "You mean the generator problem, for architecture is solvable?"

I told him that I did mean that, and that my colleagues and I were on the way to solving it for a large number of particular cases, and believed it to be solvable in general.

Can we claim that a problem is solved if we still believe it is AI-complete? Bah. Did Alexander ask what was meant by the generator problem?

He presents a list of elements of society in which changes must be made:

  • The process of banking
  • The control and regulation of money
  • The way money flows through a project
  • The conditions in which risk is deployed
  • The process of development
  • Speculation in land
  • Construction contracts
  • The role of architects and engineers
  • Organization of construction companies
  • The nature of planning
  • The nature of master plans
  • The nature of construction contracts
  • The process of ecological evaluation
  • Evaluation by lending institutions
  • Architectural competitions
  • The size and scope of architect's work
  • The teaching of architecture
  • The priorities of manufacturers
  • Building codes and regulations
  • The role of town planners
  • The mortgage process
  • The process of housing ownership
  • Control over housing
  • Ownership of public land and streets
  • Protection of the wilderness

Distressingly, he makes a good case for these. Our laws and customs of land use are pretty screwed up. To make them good would require some pretty fundamental changes to our society.

The best part of the book is the Appendix "A small example of a living process", a case study of planning/building a house in the Berkeley hills. Here we see way that the plans changed as the building was built. We see how to trick the Berkeley building inspectors. We see the advantages and frustrations of the incremental building/planning approach. And there are plenty of pretty photos. Check it out.

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How it Would Have Gone Down

I think the conversation would have gone something like this.

Me: Let's trade books.

Her: Excuse me?

Me: Please trade books with me. Just for the duration of this streetcar ride.

Her: Wait, what?

Me: I finished reading my book. I have nothing to read. You have a book I haven't read. You probably haven't read my book.

Her: Uh...

Me: So if we trade books, each of us will have something new to read.

Her: That sounds dumb.

Me: Please?

Her: Is your book good?

Me: Uhm, well it's an architect talking about how to make buildings.

Her: I don't know...

Me: Except it turns out he's also a contractor.

Her: Mister, I think you should stop bothering me.

Me: But the library was closed.

Her: You think I won't call the cops? Because I will.

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