Book Report: The Algebraist

I walked several miles today so that I could fail to see a calligraphy exhibit. In theory, it has some work by Tauba Auerbach. In theory, it was open today, but a sign on the door said it was closed. I guess I could have tried the door, anyhow. This was on the campus of San Francisco State University. Often, school doors are unlocked. Kids need to study on weekends. It didn't seem worth the risk, though. The risk was: I really didn't want to deal with any security guards. I smelled funny. I smelled like mineral oil. I'd dropped my magnetic compass, it had broken, it was full of mineral oil, now I smelled like mineral oil. So I didn't see the calligraphy exhibit. But that was OK, it was still a fun walk.

The Algebraist is Iain Banks science fiction, but it's not a Culture novel. Instead, it's a tale of exploration, war, and intrigue set against a backdrop of galactic empire. There are twists, there are turns. It's jolly good fun. Some of the plot strands don't really seem to fit. There's a revenge-driven character who flies across the galaxy chasing someone. (I'm exaggerating, but not by much.) The confrontation between this revenger and revengee seems tacked-on, and you wonder why it's there. But then, you might wonder why you're reading a fluffy bit of science fiction in the first place. The answer is: it's fun. It doesn't all have to make sense.

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"Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere" is Everywhere

JessicaLa researched an old puzzlehunt, and wrote some interesting things about it. I don't have anything to add to that, but in the tradition of boring bloggers blogging about other bloggers blogging about them, I will point out this quote:

As Larry would put it: Puzzle Hunts are everywhere, even...

It's really cool that the puzzle competition is starting to move toward the mainstream - the Treasure Hunters show, the Da Vinci Quest on Google last summer, now CBS's Gold Rush game, and lots of other little things besides. I'm a little torn on this - it's nice that more people are "getting it" because I feel a little less geeky trying to explain it, but it's kind of fun sometimes being a part of a small elite community.

So now I can say, It's really cool that the phrase "Puzzle Hunts are everywhere" is starting to move towards the mainstream. I think this is wonderful, as this phrase is the product of hours of market research. Some versions of this phrase that were rejected include "The Ubiquity of Treasure/Puzzle-Hunt Thingies is Self-Evident" and "Morse Code in Your FACE, Planet Earth!!1!"

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Link: Blinky Light Photo

This morning, I listened to audio recordings of the Team Snout Game Control "war room", jotting down notes for a game write-up. It's not so exciting to listen to this stuff after the fact, when the crises are past. Who would think it would require so much chatter to track down a set of car keys? Then again, I still haven't reached the part of the audio where I wake Anna up from a sound sleep and bring her down to the "war room"--to get some car keys from her. It turned out she didn't have those car keys. So I guess there are worse things than listening to large amounts of chatter, e.g., failing to hear the small amount of chatter that lets you know that you don't really need to wake Anna up. But I digress, and I haven't even started yet. Ahem.

Puzzle hunts often require teams to find clues late at night. In these situations, it's useful to mark clue locations with blinky lights. You can hang blinky lights from string. You can tape them to things. But if ever I need to hide a clue up my nose, I know that I can still affix a nearby blinky light with the power of magnetism.

OK, I'm remembering this photo from the Google Intern bay cruise dinner shindig. Avani the intern took that photo, and you might think that she messed up the light metering, which is rather dark. But that's not what's going on. The reason that that photo's so dark is that there's a blinky light magnetically attached to my nose, confusing the heck out of the camera.

That was a reasonably straightforward party. Not like the parties I've been having this weekend. Friday was the momentary escape from Cincinnati party. Yesterday was the Hogwarts crew wrap-up party. Today was the good luck with the open-heart surgery party. There's something to be said for a party in which the most complicated thing going on is figuring out how to get a blinky light to stay attached to your nose.

Wow, what if there was a blinky light attached to your nose, and it was showing the location of a puzzle-hunt clue? That would be awesome. Like, you'd solve a puzzle, and its solution would be "THE NEXT CLUE IS UP YOUR NOSE". And when you looked at yourself in the mirror, you'd see a blinky light attached to your nose. And you'd think "Wow, how did Game Control sneak up and plant a clue in my nose along with a blinky light without me noticing?"

I've stopped making sense. Too much partying this weekend. I'll go sleep now.

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Book Report: The Man Behind the Microchip

Lea W. is in town, visiting from Cincinnati. Several folks gathered at Yancy's Saloon on Irving to kick it with Lea. Michael asked the question: "What do you love to do? There are a bunch of things that you like to do, but what do you love to do? What do you look forward to all the time?" Michael used to love basketball, until his back got messed up; now he loves travel. Eiko likes to run on trails, then eat protein-rich meals while talking with friends. I said that I loved to play puzzle hunts; then when someone said that she loved to sail, I thought that I wanted to change my answer to sailing; then I wanted to change my answer to travel. But I don't think any of those things are it. I left the party early. I was sleepy. I am sleepy. But still I'm thinking. I was thinking on the way home. I was thinking: I don't love any of those things, but I love writing about them afterwards. But that wasn't quite right. And then I thought, I love doing things with family and friends. But that's not quite right either--I love traveling, love writing about traveling, but that's often alone.

I think it's this: I love looking forward to having a story to tell. I love to do fun things with family friends because then we can reminisce about them later. I love to do things I can write about, because that means that there's a story in there, and I can tell that story to people and they'll like it. It's too bad that most things in life don't result in stories. Or maybe they do. I was just reading a biography of a Silicon Valley pioneer. It wasn't much like my life, but it wasn't so far different. Anyhow, this book, The Man Behind the Microchip was pretty interesting.

I've worked at start-ups. I felt like a pioneer, doing something new. But I shouldn't have. Start-ups are old news. This biography of Robert Noyce, an electronic engineer from the early days of semiconductors and microcontrollers, is full of start-up stories. They brought back memories, some of them painful. I thought I was breaking new ground, but this was all well-trodden.

But why talk about the personal stuff? There's plenty of other echoes here. Or rather, this book points out that present-day events are echoes of the past. It was big news when Google recruited people by posting puzzles on billboards and in magazine ads. But here's a little snippet about Shockley Semiconductor:

Vic Grinich, tall and thin with curly hair he wore longer than the fashionable buzz cuts, responded to a want ad that Shockley had written in code an published in a scientific journal to screen out insufficiently intelligent applicants.

Nowadays, electricity is a big factor when planning a computer service that's going to scale. You don't want to plan on building machines that you can't afford to power up. Apparently, this is a revival of a 70s concept, back when OPEC was standing firm on an oil embargo.

The prospect of rolling blackouts alarmed Noyce, who readily admitted that the semiconductor industry had designed its processes and equipment "assuming that petrochemicals were free and available and that power was free and available." The average wafer fab used 30 times as much electricity as a commercial office building of the same size, and consumed large quantities of xylene, acetone, and disopropyl alchohol, all petrochemical derivatives.

Nothing new under the sun; we stumble in the footprints of giants.

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Link: Iron Puzzler

If you're on the Bay Area Night Game mailing list, then you already know that Iron Puzzler is coming up. So I don't know why I even mention it.


Book Report: The Island of Lost Maps

The Island of Lost Maps is non-fiction, a book about a non-descript thief who slices rare maps out of old books in libraries. It was kind of a non-descript book. I can't remember much of it. I remember that I enjoyed reading it. But now if you asked me to pick this book out of a line-up of other books, I'm not sure I could.

If you like non-fiction, I guess that this would be a good book for a long bus ride: fun and easy. If you don't remember it later, that's probably OK.

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Link: Tauba Auerbach images

Good visual design, by tautology, is enjoyable to look at. I stumbled upon some letterformy designs by artist/designer Tauba Auerbach. (I was trying out the new MSN Live image search. In Dirk Gently fashion, it didn't show me what I was looking for, but did show me something that I needed to see. In this case, I needed to see some works by Tauba Auerbach.) You look at them for a while and think that if you ever received a word puzzle that was laid out by Ms. Auerbach, you'd never settle for a plain grid again. Apparently, she likes ASCII, Morse, Braille, and LEDs, too. Oh, and maybe cipher machines.

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Hogwarts Photos

A few weekends back, I helped to playtest the Hogwarts Game. Then I went to a few puzzle-construction parties. Last weekend, I volunteered for Game Control for the duration of the Game.

I'm working on a write-up. But that will take a while to finish. I'm still digesting a few pages of notes and a few hours of audio recording. Meanwhile, all I have to offer is Hogwarts Game photos.

Fortunately, plenty of other folks have written interesting things, including Darcy, Tracy, JessicaLa, and Lessachu. Also, other people took photos, often better photos than mine. David Lindes has photos. Darcy has Photos

And there are probably plenty of others that I missed.

[Update: more links. JessicaLa's photos, Static Zombie write-up, Miss Jerry's dry run photos]

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Book Report: BAE05: Ellen Ullman's "Dining with Robots"

The Best American Essays 2005 contains two essays which pay homage to the then recently-deceased chef Julia Child. One of them is by Ellen Ullman. Ellen Ullman is a geek; she writes about software development; here in the essay "Dining with Robots" she writes about a clunky metaphor. When she was learning to write computer programs, she heard this metaphor; when I was learning to code, I heard this metaphor. Maybe it's universal. The metaphor is this:

A computer program is like a recipe. It's a set of instructions.

Ellen Ullman points out that this metaphor doesn't work when you look at a recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking--she looks at a recipe that mentions "important guests" and "a good bordeaux". These are real-world concepts, not easily expressed as computer data structures.

This leads Ms. Ullman to some musing on the topic: AI is a hard problem. More specifically, creating artificial intelligence that will interact with humans is a hard problem. But she wrote this article for non-technical people, so she doesn't talk about various past AI techniques which flopped. Instead, she talks about the peculiarly human thinking we do automatically at a dinner party: sitting in a chair, understanding the utility of an ice-cream spoon; tasting.

Then it gets weirder. What a fun essay.

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Book Report: BAE05: Andrea Barrett's "The Sea of Information"

Early Saturday morning, my friend Tom Lester drove me to the Emeryville Amtrak station from Berkeley. He pointed out the bakery called Sweet Adeline, and said that they had good cookies. My memories of the next 33 hours are kind of hazy. There was a train ride. Then there was about 20 hours sitting in a hotel room in Sacramento, watching people answer phones, answering a phone, and getting progressively twitchier if five minutes passed without hearing a phone ring. Then there was a party. Then there was another train ride, and I was back in Emeryville. Then I was in Berkeley, on a pleasantly cool Sunday afternoon, at Sweet Adeline, eating ginger snaps and drinking cold milk. It seemed to me that this was the best snack I had ever had in my entire life, but you might not want to trust that thought, though--my judgement was pretty impaired by that point.

But you can trust this book report. I wrote it ahead of time, before the weekend, back when I could still think straight:

I read the compilation The Best American Essays 2005. I picked it up because it contained the essay "The Sea of Information" by Andrea Barrett. She writes books that are weighty with historical research. Surely, I hoped, an essay by her about "The Sea of Information" would shed insight into her research methods, perhaps give hints about how certain search-oriented companies could help her to research/write novels better faster stronger.

But it turns out that her research methods are not so search-y, but are more browse-y. She's not looking for particular facts. She follows chains of books and ideas. One leads to the next.

About halfway through the essay, you realize that she's answering the cliche question: "Where do you get your ideas?" She reads an old pamphlet about tuberculosis treatment; she looks at photos of an old sugar factory; she looks for quirks of language, the hints they give of another time's way of thinking.

She got a fellowship to work at the New York Public Library. She had an office. She could request more books, someone would bring more books. She read. She read more. One day into her stint in the fellowship at the New York Public Library was 9/11 2001.

Why was I reading all this? Why do all this work, especially when I wasn't writing and didn't know if, when I started again, I'd find a way to use any of it? And especially when I might more usefully have been out in the world, helping someone, fixing something: cleaning up the rubble or raising money or aiding the families of the dead. Instead I read, which is what I do.

This was not the essay I expected to read. It was darker, more gnarly. And though I didn't find the answers I wanted, I did find out how Andrea Barrett gets her ideas. It ain't easy. I don't think I can help her.

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Link: Flowers and P0rn

My apartment building's laundry room is currently out of commision; the washing and drying machines are tipped over with parts ripped out and dumped on the floor. This is either the work of wild baboons or else it's a repair gone wrong. I'm not sure which. But it's been going on for a while now, so today I made my first visit to the neighborhood laundromat: Wash Club, 500 Frederick Street. It's pretty swank, with a comfy sofa. And there are photos of flowers on the wall. At least some of them are orchids. Which reminds me to mention a book.

My friend Elizabeth Graves continues to take awesome photos. Some of her orchid photos won an orchid photo contest and, as such, were published in a book. But it turns out that this book isn't just orchid photos. This book has two photo themes, as summed up in the cryptic title Like Sand from Orchid's Lips. Apparently this means that the other photo theme was sand and/or nudes that look like sand. Elizabeth was kind of surprised that her photos would end up in a book with some nudes, but that seems like a good thing to me--now everyone who wants a photo book containing nudes is going to buy this thing. This book has great crossover potential, and I suppose it means that a lot of p0rnhounds will end up interested in flowers. Goodness knows what will happen if these people discover the work of Georgia O'Keefe.

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Book Report: The Invention that Changed the World

This book was a pretty good general history of the early development of RADAR. It doesn't stop at the end of WWII, but also talks about some of the radio telescope. I learned from this book--from my previous readings, I'd got the message from the history experts: RADAR won the war--but I'd over-focused on the proximity fuse. The proximity fuse was a pretty good application of RADAR: before the proximity fuse, anti-aircraft guns threw time bombs in the air, and hoped that they exploded when an enemy airplane was near. If enemy bombers were flying in at some altitude, you figured how long it would take a hurled bomb to reach that altitude, and set the timer accordingly. So in those WWII bomber films in which you see airplanes flying through lots of "flak", but not many planes are knocked down--that's actually pretty realistic. The bombs would often explode too soon or too late. The proximity fuse changed that--anti-aircraft guns were now pretty effective.

But that didn't win the war. It did change a battle, and did force the enemy to rein in their planes. But what RADAR did well was detect big metal enemies--and when one RADAR variation detected nearby planes, big metal enemies would try to sneak around to far-away places--so you needed long-range detectors. And submarine detectors. And this and that and the other thing. Thus, in addition to the proximity fuse, engineers needed to detect other RADAR devices to detect different things at different ranges. No one variation was enough on its own.

Anyhow, this book cured my obsession with the proximity fuse and taught me a few things. I still don't really understand the water-vapor hydrogen freqency hoo-ha, and this book's explanation was not sufficient to penetrate my thick skull. But no other book has succeeded at that either, so no worries.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, Even Epcot

A couple of jobs ago, I worked with this funny programmer guy named Chuck Jordan. Lately, he's been a consulting imagineer for Disney, working on a top-secret hush-hush project. But now he's allowed to blog about it--and it's a puzzle hunt! Well, it's a treasure hunt for kids, so maybe I shouldn't call it "puzzle hunt". Still, it's a neat parallel. Anyhow, he wrote about it, and then he wrote about it some more.

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