Escher for real

With a 3-D printer rapid prototyping machine, you can now create just about anything you can mathematically describe. It doesn’t have to be practical or easy to machine. If you can picture it, you can build it. (If you’re wondering how in the world 3-D printers work, Z Corp has a nifty animated explanation.)

But what about unreal, unphysical things? What about all that weird stuff that M.C. Escher drew, the endless staircases and impossible buildings, can you make those? That’s what some folks at Technion University were wondering. Armed with some funky blueprints and a machine from Z Corp, they actually built some objects they collectively call Escher for Real. They’ve also published some nice animations that show how these “impossible” objects are made possible by some grotesque contortions that vanish magically if you look at them from exactly the right angle. Rotating them from the magic viewing position reveals the trick and can be oddly disorienting, like walking around the famous Ames Room illusion.

Tower is doomed

Yesterday while I was at Tower Records in Harvard Square I noticed they were playing some fun reggae/dance hall music. “What album is that?” I asked the cashier. He showed me the album: Beenie Man: Back to Basics. I like Beenie Man. I have a few of his albums. Why not buy it? I found the album on the shelves, which took a while, and discovered it cost $18.99 (although I see it’s only $14.99 on the Tower site). That was too much for me to make a spontaneous purchase. If it was available on Apple’s iTunes store, I could get all 15 tracks for $15.

In fact, you can get it from Apple. And there’s a fair amount of added value too. It’s easy to preview all the songs. You don’t have to buy every song. You get related music recommendations. Much more music is available.

We’re always hearing how freeloading teenagers are stealing music and ripping off struggling artists. The sad part of my story is that I was happy to spend some money on music today, but it was way too easy for Apple to get it instead of Tower. In other words, a place like Tower gets whacked both by freeloaders and casual buyers. I’ll be sorry to see them go (they have a good magazine rack!) but I can’t imagine that they’ll last much longer.

Incidentally, I think Apple is missing a big opportunity by sequestering their music store inside their iTunes software. When I went to make a link to Beenie Man’s latest album, I couldn’t find a URL to link to. My first thought was actually to link to Amazon, but then I decided to throw some traffic Tower’s way.

Fund our walk for Jay

Jay and his Granddad

Every year around this time, a bunch of people from in and around Boston go for a three mile fundraising walk along a section of the Charles River near Harvard. The walk is called Walk FAR for NAAR, and the funds raised go to autism research. Last year this one Boston walk (out of 65 such events nationwide) raised more than $670,000 for research. You can read about sponsored research from last year here.

My son Jay is autistic, so not only am I walking, I have a painfully deep and personal interest in funding this cause. I want to convince you that you do too, because autism is very expensive to treat and manage. Any progress we make to prevent, mitigate, or cure autism saves enormous sums of money and impossible-to-reckon amounts of parental effort. So give on behalf of Jay, on behalf of all the autistic kids out there, on behalf of all the parents of autistic kids, the extended families, the networks of therapists and teachers and supporters and friends, for Jay’s sake and your own, give.

The process is as easy as a visit to the Jay’s Team page. To those of you who have already given, many thanks!

If you want to learn a little more about Jay, here are some stories I’ve posted previously on this site.

Finally, and curiously, I’m not the only Boston-based Ned working in the software industry who blogs and has a son with autism. Ned Batchelder (whose blog I thoroughly recommend) will be walking with his son Nat.

Fantagraphics revealed

For a long time I have been an admirer and occasional purchaser of The Comics Journal, an improbably entertaining critical journal of the comics industry published by Fantagraphics. I enjoy reading about the how the world looks from the artist’s viewpoint, the problems they face, the way they go about solving them, the dirt they dish on other artists. The interviews in the Comics Journal are often extraordinarily intimate. And long! I find myself reading and thinking: this must be a labor of love… it is absurdly impractical any other way you look at it. The journal is thick, well-produced, crowded with dangerously long articles, interviews, and harangues. It must sell in tiny quantities. But what great stuff. In addition to the Journal, Fantagraphics publishes comics. The single fact that they publish Chris Ware’s weird and wonderful Quimby the Mouse is enough to justify their place of greatness among comics publishers.

I have wondered what kind of operation could hold this enterprise together, so I was pleased to find this article about Fantagraphics in the Seattle Weekly: Saved by the Beagle. The title refers to the fact that, in securing the rights to publish the Complete Peanuts, Fantagraphics should be able to bank on steady revenues for the next ten years. I’m glad to hear that.

Viruses are viruses

The biological analogy for computer viruses gets ever stronger. It used to be that “virus” was somewhat over-the-top as a description for the simple software hacks that passed for malware. As the world of software grows more complex, however, the description gets ever more apt. Now we begin to see that there are computer-health public policy issues associated with mass immunizations just as there are with “real” viruses. If you don’t get vaccinated for polio, not only are you at risk yourself, but you endanger other unvaccinated people. You are not simply foolish; you are a public health menace. Many vaccines are thus mandated under penalty of law.

Now we find that viruses are being used to infect and enslave (zombify) unprotected computers across cyberspace. Gangs of zombie computers can then be harnessed to do serious mischief. See this article in New Scientist for a discussion of zombie computers: Thousands of zombie PCs created daily.

Ben Hammersley has also written on the concept of two emerging cultures. One part of society knows how to prevent spam, stop time-wasting hoaxes, and eliminate computer virus infections. The other part is woefully ignorant of these things, and, here’s the new part, can now make the smug clever folk very sick. My sick computer can now do you real harm. Are federally mandated computer vaccines far behind?

Chris Lydon online

Maybe you remember Chris Lydon from his days as the wise voice of the Connection on NPR. He’s an excellent interviewer and an entertaining prose stylist, but he’s also enough of a curmudgeon to get himself tossed out of his Connection job at WBUR. It’s too bad, because he’s still doing great stuff, but I don’t know how many people notice. As far as I can tell, one of the principal outlets for his journalism (in addition to his MP3 interviews) is his blog over at the Harvard Law School. I think he got the blog religion from Dave Winer some time back. He may well be regarded some day as one of the vanguard of the new wave of journalism, but I imagine it gets a little lonely on the frontier…

Anyway, I enjoyed his dissection of the Republican National Convention. His words about the building of a Roman-style American Empire both amused and disturbed. Is Bush, as Susan Sontag says, the Augustus to Clinton’s Julius Caesar? Here’s what Chris Lydon has to say about it.

There’s more than a whiff of Caesarism in mid-town this week, and a lot of the convention Republicans are high on it. You catch some of it on TV: the rigid scripting, the air of reverence around Bushes young and old, the endless strumming of war themes, the laugh-out-loud foolishness of the rhetorical over-reaching–First Lady Laura Bush’s remark, for example, that her husband had liberated 50-million people around the world… that the happy schoolgirls of Afghanistan are now safely back at their desks.

Being the world’s only superpower sounded like such a good gig at the time.

Eric’s son

I started reading Eric Snowdeal’s blog over a year ago because I saw a number of his interests overlapped with mine. He was working at a high tech company (Motorola), very much interested in biology and bioinformatics, and also very much into the blogging revolution. He’s also happens to be the kind of person that doesn’t mind sharing a lot about the details of his life online: how he trains for a marathon, ultrasound pictures of his baby, and so on. But I hadn’t visited his site in a long time. I recently noticed by doing a link search that he had linked to me this spring, so I jumped over to his site to see what was new. I was surprised to see that his whole site had pretty much come to a stop in July, with one exception: detailed coverage of the progress of his prematurely born son.

This was a shock; it stopped me in my tracks. I was used to his breezy discussions of the latest technical trends, and instead I saw a picture of an infant boy weighing 1.7 pounds, born after only 25 weeks. It was a frame-shattering moment. I find pictures of premature babies almost too painful to look at, and to imagine the anguish, stress, and hour-to-hour rollercoaster of emotions he must be enduring, it brought tears to my eyes. As the father of a disabled son, I know something about parental anguish, and seeing it here on the web page of professional peer was heartbreaking and very personal somehow.

I have linked from my site to the Trixie Update in the past. It’s a geeky father’s obsessive record of a healthy baby girl’s life. Go look at it… it’s impressive, bursting with details, optimism, health, and good cheer. Oh the zany things kids do! How they cry and poop! It’s an excellent site, but if you want to know what it means to suffer as a parent, go read Eric Snowdeal’s account. He’s still sounds amazingly upbeat, but his tiny, fragile boy is living in the constant shadow of the unspeakable. It’s easy, as a parent-to-be, to imagine yourself like Trixie’s dad. But you just might find yourself in Eric’s tortured position one day. Making children is serious business. We think we know how things are going to go. We don’t know.

Take a look at some of the postcards he’s been getting. This whole episode is a good example of how the web can make more complete portraits of us all if we will let it. To me, Eric Snowdeal had been a two-dimensional image of a confident competent high tech guy. Not anymore. I wish him luck.

Ambient data fountain

How do you decide whether or not you should put on a coat before you leave your house in the morning? I like to open the door and step outside, but my wife likes to open the newspaper and read the forecast. Both of us are reading a display of the weather, but mine is implicit and hers is explicit. Weather is nice that way. It never goes down, and a quick peek out the window is often enough to tell you what you need to know. Other kinds of data aren’t typically available as implicit, or ambient, displays.

A Dutch artist named Koert van Mensvoort has taken on the problem of displaying currency exchange rates between yen, euros, and dollars as the dancing waters of a fountain.
As Koert puts it, “In the morning paper, I can read the weather report as well as the stock quotes. But when I look out of my window I only get a weather update and no stock exchange info. Could someone please fix this bug in my environmental system?” See the DATAFOUNTAIN website for pretty pictures and splashy sounds.

In the future, ambient interfaces will be so common you’ll be able to end awkward conversations with the plausible excuse “Sorry, but I’ve got a call coming in on this daffodil.”

Skype is a winner

James Fallows, the tech-savvy journalist normally seen over at the Atlantic, has a generally glowing review in the NY Times of the free internet phone service called Skype: Business > Your Money > Techno Files: In Internet Calling, Skype Is Living Up to the Hype” href=””> In Internet Calling, Skype Is Living Up to the Hype. Free international high quality phone service… already downloaded 21 million times… and now on top of everything else, they have the stamp of legitimacy conferred by a rave review from the NY Times. If you have any stock in phone companies, sell it now.

In praise of tweaking

Last spring I wrote an article for interactions magazine, the official magazine of SIGCHI, the ACM’s Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction. My paper was about the MATLAB Online Programming Contest, which I’ve mentioned in this space a few times. You can’t get the article from the interactions website without an ACM membership, but my copyright release form allows me to put a copy here, which I’ve finally gotten around to doing. So here you go. As seen in the May/June 2004 issue of interactions, In Praise of Tweaking: A Wiki-like Programming Contest (PDF).

On first hearing how the Wikipedia site works, people are often scornful, incredulous, or simply dismissive. It can’t possibly work. How could it? Similarly, the MATLAB online programming contest is built upon an almost paradoxical premise: that a contest can be collaborative. Against all expectation, the back and forth drama of leaps and tweaks turns MATLAB programming into an entertaining spectator sport…