Monday, February 27, 2006

Blog break

Moe (proprietor of Moe's Tavern): Homer, lighten up. You're making Happy Hour really ironic.

- a syndication cut (whatever that is) from The Simpsons
Sometimes I get a bit sick of blogging, and yes (come on, sing it with me, people!) this is one of those times.

I'll be back in a week or two, and if you have a feed reader you'll know exactly when. I'm using Bloglines now, and it's good. The only downside is that it's web-based, so you need to log in and out all the time (in contrast, the reader with my email program just runs continuously for as long as I've got it connected, searching feeds every hour or whatever it is). The good thing is that in many cases, you only need to add the site's URL and it will find the feed for you.

Anyway, toodle-oo for the minute then, reader. Best wishes to you.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Treasure alert!

Look! Improvident Lackwit, a blog which relates everything in life to an episode of The Simpsons.

Why that name?
Mrs. Burns [on phone]: Whot?
Smithers: Hello, Mrs. Burns? This is Waylon Smithers. I have your son Montgomery on the line...
Mrs. Burns: That improvident lackwit?
Just what the world was waiting for.
Have a good Friday.


Errr... Opening my eyes now. That thing hasn't been updated since the 28th of October last year. Drat.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bye-bye house

This is a photo of the back door and little entrance room (what should I call it, a foyer?) at my grandmother's place. Except that now it's her former place. The house has been sold and Monday was the official changeover day. Yesterday the rental tenants moved in.

My grandparents bought the house in 1937. My father and his siblings all grew up there, and in 1986 my grandfather died there. A year or so ago, my grandmother moved out to a retirement place, returning to the house about once a week so she could do a bit of gardening and her laundry - she refused to learn how to operate the washing machines at her new place :)

For me, the house was the setting for many family Christmases, a few childhood holidays, and lots of casual drop-in-and-see-the-grandparents visits. It always seemed as much a part of the family as we humans are.

And so, knowing for months that it was going to be sold, I was expecting to get to this point and feel sad. Or nostalgic. Or even angry. But the weird fact is, I feel nothing at all. Nothing. It's like I've hardly even noticed the whole event. I even forgot to take photos of the place until all the furniture had been moved out, and by that time all the rooms were deserted and empty. (The photos are at Flickr in the "Another house" set.)

It feels like I should have made a better effort to record the place, to preserve the memory of it in some way, to mark its passing and signal the end of this family-history era.

But I can't seem to want to. Which means in turn that I'm just not going to. And so the house leaves the family and goes to someone else, and instead of waving goodbye and sniffling, I have another cup of tea and feel nothing.

It's just too weird. I don't know what's going on. I felt guilty about forgetting to take photos while the house was still lived-in, as though it will one day be something I'll expect myself to have done. And now I feel guilty about not being upset. And this ridiculous situation is accompanied by the types of questions which probably have no answer: What's the point? What are we here for? What if we live and die and disappear without a trace and there's no one to mourn the loss of us: would it matter that we'd lived? What about after the people we love and who love us are gone too - will our lives have meant anything beyond us? What's death? What's life? What's the bloody point??

I was hoping that by the time I got to the end of this post there'd be an obvious and uplifting way to finish it. But guess what...
Let's just go back up to the photo above and admire that lovely door and window. Nice, aren't they?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Pup 2

© Charles Barsotti
(Click pic for a larger version.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

There are none so blind...

This is a picture of the kitchen/dining room where I live, and that's a new secondhand refrigerator on the left, trying to fit into that alcove (there's too much space to the side of it, not enough over the top). The old fridge (on the right) is sitting in the dining room, squished up against the table and chairs (out of shot to the right), which are themselves squished up against a pile of things I need to move elsewhere. The only easy way to get from this side of the room to the other side and the doorway you can see in the top right-hand corner is to walk through the gap on the left of the old fridge. The gap is 56cm wide; I lined up my boots to better illustrate the width, but they don't show up very well. The gap is quite big enough to walk through, but there's no room to spare if you're carrying anything.

The old fridge is sitting there because the removalists (ie. Dad and his ute) have been away this week, and anyway, I was going to clean it out first. That was the plan. It would have taken less than 10 minutes, or 20 if I wanted to whinge and moan about it. Not a huge effort. In fact, had I devoted perhaps one minute per day to the task, it would now have been completed.

But did I devote one minute per day to the task? Did I devote one thought per day to the task? Or did I, after the first day, and despite squeezing past the damn fridge about 50 times a day every day thereafter, just stop noticing it was even there??

I completely forgot about the thing until now. And I only noticed it today because I had to lean around the other side of it, trying to reach something on the dining room table.

???!!! Scary.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's Day 2006

What do we think of Valentine's Day then, reader?

My first inclination is to say something cynical, suggesting it's all just an excuse for people to get schmaltzy.

But - stopping to think about it - so what if it IS? What's so bad about schmaltzy? It's funny, it's warm, some people like it. Where's the harm? And whatever else Valentine's Day might be, at heart (its real heart) it's the one day of the year when people around the world celebrate romantic love. That seems like a pretty good reason to celebrate.

Maybe I'm just jealous, anyway. Look at this:
My Mind has been the most discontented and restless one that ever was put into a body too small for it. I never felt my Mind repose upon anything with complete and undistracted enjoyment - upon no person but you. When you are in the room my thoughts never fly out of window: you always concentrate my whole senses.

- John Keats to Fanny Brawne in 1820.

So go, you happy Valentiners! The rest of us salute you (with hearts'n'kisses, balloons and chocolates). Love is good.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dangerous ideas

Have you seen this year's answers to the annual Edge question?
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?
There's a lot to get through - 119 contributors - and unless you're a genius you've got Buckley's chance of understanding the import of every response (well, that's what I tell myself). But still, it's interesting. And just the fact that so many major thinkers can be rounded up annually and their brains directed to a single question deserves to be celebrated. Bless the internet for making this possible, if that's the explanation for such warm and fuzzy togetherness.

My pick of these big ideas:

Piet Hut (professor of astrophysics): A radical reevaluation of the character of time

What if a future scientific understanding of time would show all previous pictures to be wrong, and demonstrate that past and future and even the present do not exist? That stories woven around our individual personal history and future are all just wrong?

Brian Goodwin (biologist, author): Fields of danger

Could it be that biology and culture are not so different after all; that both are based on historical traditions and languages that are used to construct patterns of relationship embodied in communities, either of cells or of individuals?

Scott Sampson (museum curator, assoc. prof. of geology & geophysics, TV host): The purpose of life is to disperse energy

Virtually all organisms, including humans, are, in a real sense, sunlight transmogrified, temporary waypoints in the flow of energy. [That's not his dangerous idea. I'm just taking the opportunity to say, "You're sunlight transmogrified, my dear." :) ]

[...] evolution is not driven by the machinations of selfish genes propagating themselves through countless millennia. Rather, ecology and evolution together operate as a highly successful, extremely persistent means of reducing the gradient generated by our nearest star. In my view, evolutionary theory (the process, not the fact of evolution!) and biology generally are headed for a major overhaul once investigators fully comprehend the notion that the complex systems of earth, air, water, and life are not only interconnected, but interdependent, cycling matter in order to maintain the flow of energy.

Lee Smolin (physicist, author): Seeing Darwin in the light of Einstein; seeing Einstein in the light of Darwin

Einstein emphasizes the relational aspect of all properties described by science, while Darwin proposes that ultimately, the law which governs the evolution of everything else, including perhaps what were once seen to be laws - is natural selection.

Should Darwin's method be applied even to the laws of physics? Recent developments in elementary particle physics give us little alternative if we are to have a rational understanding of the laws that govern our universe.

Brian Greene (physicist, mathematician, author, TV presenter): The Multiverse

While some mysteries may indeed reflect nothing more than the particular universe, within the multiverse, we find ourselves inhabiting, other mysteries are worth struggling with because they are the result of deep, underlying physical laws. The danger, if the multiverse idea takes root, is that researchers may too quickly give up the search for such underlying explanations. When faced with seemingly inexplicable observations, researchers may invoke the framework of the multiverse prematurely — proclaiming some or other phenomenon to merely reflect conditions in our bubble universe — thereby failing to discover the deeper understanding that awaits us.

Leonard Susskind (physicist, author): The "Landscape"

On the face of it, the Anthropic Principle is far too silly to be dangerous. It sounds no more sensible than explaining the evolution of the eye by saying that unless the eye evolved, there would be no one to read this page. But the A.P. is really shorthand for a rich set of ideas that are beginning to influence and even dominate the thinking of almost all serious theoretical physicists and cosmologists.

[...] string theorists, much to the regret of many of them, are discovering that the number of possible environments described by their equations is far beyond millions or billions. This enormous space of possibilities, whose multiplicity may exceed ten to the 500 power, is called the Landscape. If these things prove to be true, then some features of the laws of physics (maybe most) will be local environmental facts rather than written-in-stone laws: laws that could not be otherwise.

[This threatens] physicists' fondest hope, the hope that some extraordinarily beautiful mathematical principle will be discovered: a principle that would completely and uniquely explain every detail of the laws of particle physics (and therefore nuclear, atomic, and chemical physics). [...]

What further worries many physicists is that the Landscape may be so rich that almost anything can be found: any combination of physical constants, particle masses, etc. This, they fear, would eliminate the predictive power of physics. Environmental facts are nothing more than environmental facts. They worry that if everything is possible, there will be no way to falsify the theory — or, more to the point, no way to confirm it.

Paul Steinhardt (professor of science): It's a matter of time

[...] recently, some cosmologists have been exploring the possibility that the universe is exponentially older [than previously thought]. In this picture, the evolution of the universe is cyclic. The Big Bang is not the beginning of space and time but, rather, a sudden creation of hot matter and radiation that marks the transition from one period of expansion and cooling to the next cycle of evolution. Each cycle might last a trillion years, say. Fourteen billion years marks the time since the last infusion of matter and radiation, but this is brief compared to the total age of the universe. Each cycle lasts about a trillion years and the number of cycles in the past may have been ten to the googol power or more!

Then, using the slow relaxation mechanisms considered previously, it becomes possible that the cosmological constant decreases steadily from one cycle to the next. Since the number of cycles is likely to be enormous, there is enough time for the cosmological constant to shrink by an exponential factor, even though the decrease over the course of any one cycle is too small to be undetectable. Because the evolution slows down as the cosmological constant decreases, this is the period when most of the cycles take place. There is no multiverse and there is nothing special about our region of space — we live in a typical region at a typical time.

Steven Strogatz (applied mathematician, author): The end of insight

I worry that insight is becoming impossible, at least at the frontiers of mathematics. Even when we're able to figure out what's true or false, we're less and less able to understand why.

In my own field of complex systems theory, Stephen Wolfram has emphasized that there are simple computer programs, known as cellular automata, whose dynamics can be so inscrutable that there's no way to predict how they'll behave; the best you can do is simulate them on the computer, sit back, and watch how they unfold. Observation replaces insight. Mathematics becomes a spectator sport.

If this is happening in mathematics, the supposed pinnacle of human reasoning, it seems likely to afflict us in science too, first in physics and later in biology and the social sciences (where we're not even sure what's true, let alone why).

When the End of Insight comes, the nature of explanation in science will change forever. We'll be stuck in an age of authoritarianism, except it'll no longer be coming from politics or religious dogma, but from science itself

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Colour me happy

If you love colours*, find some bliss at Colour Lovers. They've been loving colours there since 1981 :) The palettes section is maaarvellous: you can compare lots of variations really quickly. To get the hex codes** (the identifiers used in templates eg. #DDEEFF is the blue behind my blog title), just hover over each colour.

And if you want to identify the colours used on your favourite sites, I Like Your Colors! can probably help. Talk about handy!

*I can’t stop loving neutrals. I think this says something bad :(
**You can also write colour codes using RGB values (used to colour text boxes in Word documents, for example. A good way to waste hours and hours is to make lots of little text boxes and then fill them with different colours and then move them around, to see which ones go together. Just Because You Can. There's probably a better way to do it, but why mess with glorious inefficiency?). You can convert from hex to RGB here (left hand side, type after the #, then click "Set HEX" and the RGB values will be shown above, along with the colour, and a related palette).

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Reasons for blogging (for someone who isn't)

My Journal is that of me which else would spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap. I must not live for it, but in it for the gods. They are my correspondent, to whom daily I send off this sheet postpaid. I am clerk in their counting-room, and at evening transfer the account from my day-book to ledger. It is as a leaf which hangs over my head in the path. I bend the twig and write my prayers on it; then letting it go, the bough springs up and shows the scrawl to heaven. As if it were not kept shut in my desk, but were as public a leaf as any in nature. It is papyrus by the riverside; it is vellum in the pastures; it is parchment on the hills. I find it everywhere as free as the leaves which troop along the lanes in autumn. The crow, the goose, the eagle carry my quill, and the wind blows the leaves as far as I go. Or, if my imagination does not soar, but gropes in slime and mud, then I write with a reed.
- Henry David Thoreau, 08 Feb 1841

The Wisdom of the Ages

I love the way that googling so often leads to unsearched-for random sites I'd never otherwise see. Case in point: Wisdom of the Ages, a category in a blog called In a minute ago. The blogger, Sharon B, posed the question, "What lesson have you learnt in life?", provoked by the memory of useful advice once given by a friend:
In my twenties I bustled around about something and a very good friend who was in her nineties said to me, "Sharon, will you remember this when you are 90?" I realised I would not and the comment put the issue in perspective for me. It was one little comment that has influenced so much in my life. If I am hassled or tense about an issue, I stop and ask if I will remember it when I am at the end of my life. If not, I don't worry; if so, I know it's one of those big issues.
When I looked, there were 395 replies. I haven't been through them all, and a lot of the ideas don't appeal to me, but then I think that's the way it should be. We're all different; what works for you won't work for me. But it's an interesting wander through the opinions of many, and worth it for gems such as this (abbreviated, from #302):

- Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.
- If you can't be kind, at least have the decency to be vague.
- If you lend someone $20, and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.
- It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.
- Never buy a car you can't push.
- The early worm gets eaten by the bird, so sleep late.
- Birthdays are good for you; the more you have, the longer you live.
- Happiness comes through doors you didn't even know you left open.
Ahh... Wisdom. Wouldn't it be nice?

And if just the thought of acting like this didn't scare the stuffing out of my stupid timid self, this would be the way to live (#371):

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, gin & tonic in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming, "WOO HOO, what a ride!"

Sunday, February 05, 2006

What does this image say to you?

A survey which probably does more for the provider than the user (it's from Veer, a commercial image service... I think... and I assume they want to know more about how viewers react to their images) [Edit: Well, derr... :) ], but being a weirdo, I found it fun. There are 25 images, and for each you choose which of the available responses most closely resembles your own. You then get to look at how everybody voted, and this can be interesting. In two instances I found the overall results a bit alarming: a photo of a cow (44% of those surveyed seeing a "Product" rather than an "Animal") and one of an outstretched hand (46% seeing a "Fraud" rather than a "Friend").

At the end you get a score to show where you sit along the spectrum between popular and independent thought. I was right in the middle at 48%. Boo. How dull, though they try to dress it up:
Congratulations! By having one foot squarely in the throes of popular understanding and another in a world of its own, you can ride the wave of current trends while still poking your head up out of the machine of buying habits and hot trends long enough to come up with something truly your own.
Yeah, sure.

As a river courses down to the sea

I'm in the mood for blog design tinkering today - and no, I don't know what I'm doing with HTML and CSS yet, but stumbling around in the dark is part of the fun. Sometimes. If the mood is right. And the mood IS right.

Or was. But Blogger chucked a wobbly today, it seems - I've been unable to view any .blogspot addresses, including my own, for the last few hours. Great timing, damn it. Why doesn't the world run to suit me? Why??

So instead of tinkering, and to avoid a week's worth of washing up in the kitchen, I went browsing. And appropriately enough (seeing it talks about dealing with what is, rather than griping about the way you wish it was) I found this: A Dao of Web Design by John Allsopp, on A List Apart back in April 2000.
What I sense is a real tension between the web as we know it, and the web as it would be. It’s the tension between an existing medium, the printed page, and its child, the web. And it’s time to really understand the relationship between the parent and the child, and to let the child go its own way in the world.
Allsopp suggests that web designers should stop getting overwrought about controlling all aspects of their web page designs, because it's a fruitless and stupid thing to do. Unlike the world of paper pages, where designers rule the roost, web pages should be flexible enough to cater for differences in reader uses and needs - readers get more control. Designers need to reorient their thinking.
It’s time to throw out the rituals of the printed page, and to engage the medium of the web and its own nature. [...]

Designing adaptable pages is designing accessible pages. And perhaps the great promise of the web, far from fulfilled as yet, is accessibility, regardless of difficulties, to information. [...]

The web’s greatest strength, I believe, is often seen as a limitation, as a defect. [But] It is the nature of the web to be flexible, and it should be our role as designers and developers to embrace this flexibility, and produce pages which, by being flexible, are accessible to all.
The article quotes from the online Tao Te Ching:

32. Shapes

The Way has no true shape,
And therefore none can control it.
If a ruler could control the Way
All things would follow
In harmony with his desire,
And sweet rain would fall,
Effortlessly slaking every thirst.

The Way is shaped by use,
But then the shape is lost.
Do not hold fast to shapes
But let sensation flow into the world
As a river courses down to the sea.
I don't know what that means, and that sort of enigmatic writing just makes me want to hit the writer. (Say what you mean, damn it!!) But maybe understanding is a form of control, and the point is to let go of trying to control everything? Or... not. I don't know. I just think it's interesting. And I'd quite like to be a river. They're very cool.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Halcyon Le Brume

Detail from Le Brume's "Fog", 1859

From one of the great masters, "Fog" depicts the beautiful Breton coastline in winter: cool, grey, misty. Such visions of loveliness just make me despair. When will summer end? When? When??

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Don't sue me

New Yorker cartoon by Danny Shanahan**

I've just discovered The Cartoon Bank, an archive of choice cartoons previously published in the New Yorker. There are some real gems in the lineup, but of course it's all copyright held and written permission required, etc. Hmm. Well then. Fair enough.

But you need to see these things, don't you? Of course you do. And I'm just pointing the way over there. Go there. See them. It'll make you happy.

**Stolen, I guess. Sorry. If you want to bludge your own copy, please do your own dirty work and go to the source. Alternatively, you can get a framed print over there for USD$150, or a T-shirt ($19.95), or Custom Boxed Cartoon Note Cards - Surely Very Good Value, I Bet - ($29.95).