Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Arts and Crafts and Claude Shannon

So, the always-interesting Mr. Chuck Wendig, esquire had some things to say about Art with a capital A and craft. I read that, and the stuff he linked to, and having mostly digested it, I find (to some surprise) that I have something of my own to say on the subject. *cracks knuckles*

I look at it in terms of signal theory. Art is the signal, craft is the channel. The artist has an idea, a concept, a feeling, a signal that needs to get through to the audience. Whatever the artist is trying to say has to get somehow from the artist’s brain to the viewer/reader/player/user. When someone says, “is it art?” they’re usually trying to receive that signal and judge its effect on them. If the signal comes through clearly, it can still be shot down as “not art” based on the receiver’s judgment. If it doesn’t come through clearly, the receiver may have to work to understand in a way the artist doesn’t intend, like trying to decipher a child’s drawing.

The question, then, is how effectively that signal can be transmitted. That’s where craft comes in: an artist with craft is throwing bits into the void. Maybe the signal gets through, maybe not. Craft, skill, gives the artist a clearer channel. There have been a lot of times when writing where I sit there with a scene in my head, and I just can’t describe it. That’s a craft issue if it really is that clear in my head... but it’s so easy for a craftsman to blame his tools, right? And which would a writer rather admit: lacking talent or lacking vision? (I really don’t know, I lack both)

We need to talk about bandwidth, too. Not all channels can support the same throughput of information: try to cram too much meaning into flash fiction, and it’s likely to get garbled for all but the clearest channels. (Hemingway could write a novel in six words. Most writers can’t) At a given level of skill, there’s a limit to what can be said. The high-frequency signal, the fiddly little details of your vision, are lost the easiest. Now, looking at the subject from this point of view, we can talk about that book/chair comment (“I don’t think a chair is going to save someone’s life in the way a writer can.”) in a different way: a chair just has less bandwidth than a book. There’s a limit to what can be said through even the most well-crafted chair. Rodin might be able to get across a fundamental human truth in a chair (especially if it’s allowed to be a rocking chair). Me, I’d be lucky if I could get across the rough notion “you can sit on this and not die.”

The receiver, too, has a role in this dance. In some ways, just as much as the transmitter. The best transmitter on the clearest day won’t do too well with a rusted-out rabbit-ear antenna sitting in a concrete bunker. To an extent, you can make up for a tinny transmitter by having a really good receiver. In the same way that NASA uses enormous powered radio antennae to pick up the very faint signals from faraway spacecraft, well trained lookers-at-art can discern meaning where others cannot. Ever sat dumbfounded while a parent proudly shows off a crayoned monstrosity, enthusiastically pointing out one purple blob as the dog, a green stick as a grandmother, and a remarkable representation of a 1973 Pontiac as a juice stain? Or a wine taster prattle on about notes of peaches, smokiness, and bitter almond. The craft isn’t there, but a good reader can still pick up the idea being transmitted. This can work against a writer: if you always show your drafts to the same person, you risk that person knowing what you mean rather than what you say, overlooking flaws in the craft. It’s like, hypothetically speaking, picking up a cell signal with a freaking satellite dish, then claiming, “Oh sure, you get great reception out there in west-central New Hampshire, you won’t have any problems if your car breaks down by the reservoir” like those miserable fuckards at Sprint must have done.

So, your artistic vision isn’t getting across -- what does signal theory offer by way of an answer in terms of your art and your craft? Plenty, I think.

The obvious message is to strive for the clearest channel you can get: perfect your damn craft. Even the simplest message can get garbled. Like Humpty Dumpty, when you say a word, it should mean exactly what you want it to mean.

The next thing is to try to have a sense of what your bandwidth is. Flash fiction, short stories, photographs: There’s a limit to what even the best craft can effectively put into those forms, and if you try to encode too much you'll overwhelm the receiver and your message will be garbled by its own sheer weight. I have great affection for Tolkien’s work, but I think he struck a better balance in The Hobbit than in the Lord of the Rings in terms of how much world he crammed into those pages. The basics got through, but some signal was definitely lost on this reader. Me, I don’t have Tolkien’s skill, and if I try that I’ll just drive readers away. The Nyquist-Shannon theorem gives a fundamental limit to the amount of information you can send in a particular channel. It turns out, there’s a remarkable similar theory for literature in terms of words per minute, but it won’t fit in the margins of this blog.

The other thing you can do is to crank up the transmitting power: hit the audience’s emotional triggers. Blam! down goes Bambi’s mother and all of a sudden you weepy bastards give a damn about deer for the first time in your lives. It’s a manipulative trick, and people can resent it, but hey, whatever works.

Or, conserve bandwidth with a simpler message: drop the subtleties and go for a coarser, clearer artistic statement, painted with simpler, bolder strokes. This is frequently needed when going from a high-bandwidth channel to a lower one: making a movie from a television series, for example (why yes, I did recently read an old review of Serenity, why do you ask?). This is often derided as dumbing-down (particularly when Hollywood does it), but when you really know and understand the basic artistic motivation, this can instead be a refreshing clarification, stripped of unnecessary clutter: think about the Renaissance paintings of classical stories and myths, for example, or paintings of Shakespeare’s plays. A thoughtful condensation can have the effect of amplifying the important bits and making them clearer to philistines like myself. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Alternately, if you’ve got a really important point you can’t bear to leave off, you can use a kind of literary Gray code: use repetition and your knowledge of the reader to make sure that a potentially garbled message can be correctly interpreted on the far side. Basically, trade bandwidth for a guarantee of delivery. Teachers use this a lot to drill through dense skulls, by saying the same things multiple ways, or stopping periodically to ask, “did you get this?” Ayn Rand was terrible for this: for her longer books especially, it seemed that she was so afraid that the reader wouldn’t get the point that she would eventually just break the narrative and beat the reader over the head with it.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject, and probably some terrible advice. Hack away.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tests and Grandmatronly Mortality

It’s been conclusively proven: sad but true, students’ family members die at much higher rates just prior to exams. It’s even harder on the families of students who aren’t doing well -- perhaps they die of shame?There are graphs and everything, and according to my cargo cult understanding of science, graphs equals truth. Can’t argue with it.
So think about that, teachers and professors, next time you lift your poison pen to scratch out a test paper! J’accuse!
(H/T to Doc Grasshopper)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Try This On For Size

I just played through a fun little indie platformer. There are other platformers that have used the idea of growing/shrinking, like, say, Super Mario Brothers, but this one takes it to an artform and does it very well.(Requires Unity plugin, which I find does not work well with Google Chrome, otherwise my browser’o’choice)

Quote of the Day

“Backups are not the end product. Restores are.” Reader ‘eric’ in a comment on Making Light

(No, it’s not funny or anything, but damn it, that’s an important point!)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Everything You Know Is Wrong

For some reason, my food reading lately has been dominated by things that sound (or used to sound) very wrong to me.

Making french fries starting with cold oil. This bothers me; it seems like the resulting fries will just drip oil, but the claim is made that exactly the opposite is true. I will have to try it at some point, preferably on a day that the garbage goes out.

Savory oatmeal. OK, I get the theory, it’s basically porridge, jook, or the basis for white pudding (think black pudding without the blood). And I like a good savory breakfast (see down the list) but this just seems weird to me.

Salted coffee. I actually picked up on this one a while ago, and can attest that it works well -- but it still just seems wrong, especially because I think salted tea is disgusting.

Hydrating nuts. Certainly hydrating beans makes sense to me. And I’ve even joked about attempting to make baked beans with peanuts instead of the more usual legumes. But this is intriguing and weird and I’m having a little trouble with the idea.

Vinegared drinks. I touched on this earlier when I talked about gastriques, and mentioned that some people were putting them in cocktails. I’m not sure I can bring myself to drink the Vinegar Cocktail in that link... but it does sound awfully interesting, and like Kate in the comments I have also heard of adding pickle juice to drinks, even to beer. Speaking of beer...

Beer for breakfast. All right, this has nothing to do with what I’ve been reading, and everything to do with going to have a good Irish breakfast last week on the 17th. But several people remarked on how well Guinness goes down in the morning, and I was surprised to agree! Ancestry does tell, I suppose...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Meditation on Two Papers on the Mpemba Effect

I came across two excellent, fascinating, and very different papers this morning, about the Mpemba Effect: the observation that hot liquids often take less time to freeze than cold liquids, an apparent contradiction of Newton’s laws of thermodynamics. I love the story of the Mpemba Effect, it’s exactly the kind of story that scientists love to tell: scrappy upstart notices odd experimental findings, receives just enough scoffing to make for a good story (but not so much that he gives up -- he is made of sterner stuff than that!), then finally proves himself and vindicates his findings. Hooray!

OK, he wasn’t really the first person to notice it. Aristotle (in Meteorology, Book 1, near the end of Part 12) noticed it... but then, Aristotle was not much of an experimentalist: he used to claim that women had fewer teeth than men, for example. Despite having had three wives, it never occurred to him to, y’know, count. (On the other hand, if Aristotle asked to count my teeth, I’d say no.)

I was struck, in reading the two papers I’m about to describe, both by how well-crafted they are and how very different they are from each other. They complement each other in important ways, and I highly recommend reading (or at least skimming) both, as they are both freely available through Cornell’s arXiv, which is generally my go-to place for Interesting Science Crud and an excellent resource for would-be science-fiction writers.

The first paper (actually, the second one I read, but you should read it first) is an excellent historical overview of the problem, by Monwhea Jeng. It does a very able job of answering the question, “What is this effect, why is it interesting, and why should it be studied?” as well as some possibilities that others have raised for explanations. Bottom line: this problem is real, weird, and worth pursuing. (Jeng is a very able writer, too, and paints a much more interesting portrait of Mpemba’s experience than does Wikipedia)

I did take issue with one statement, though:
What is interesting about the Mpemba effect is that unlike the examples commonly given in science text- books, where theory and experiment march hand-in- hand, always leading to further progress, here theory (rightly or wrongly) prevents acceptance of experiment.
Now, this paragraph (which I have admittedly scrubbed of context) is more subtle than it looks: my first reaction was to shake my head and say that Jeng has it exactly backwards, as Gödel, Darwin, or many others would attest. But the bit about the science textbooks gives me pause here. I remember my textbooks as playing up the scientist-as-lone-hero aspect. Has that changed? Am I misremembering?

The second paper I read this morning, by James Brownridge of SUNY Binghamton, is an attempt to bring together all the possible experimental conditions that give rise to this apparent effect. This one is a very thorough experimental paper that comes to an explanation that I find very convincing. (Hint: the definition of the Mpemba effect is that, under the same experimental conditions, a quantity of hot liquid freezes faster than the same quantity of otherwise identical cold liquid. Ask yourself what it really means to have the same experimental conditions) Brownridge goes to great lengths to examine the problem from many different aspects, but also maintains something of a narrative: this was done this because of this, and then this and that as a result.

The contrast between the two papers is, to me at least, striking. I was tempted at the outset to put more value in the Brownridge paper with its detailed experiments, charts, and explanations. But I was corrected by none other than Brownridge, who holds up Jeng’s paper in the first paragraph as helpful and useful.

So, I backpedaled, and thought about it. There are two important pieces here: the problem and the solution. Often in the papers I read (and write) the two pieces come from the same author, who frames the problem, describes the procedures, and presents the solution all in one paper. It’s difficult under those conditions to avoid warping the definition of the problem to make the solution look better: after all, you’re not just persuading the reader that you’ve done useful science, but the publishers and reviewers of that paper, and to some extent convincing yourself and your teammates. I think that using another person’s paper as a problem definition can help keep you honest -- it helps outline the work a little better, you can’t rephrase it or reframe it in convenient ways.

Oh, and here’s another way to improve the discussion of science.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sentence of the Day

War against France is inherently lawful
        Kannon Shanmugam of Williams & Connolly, arguing on behalf of Henry V in French Civil Liberties Union v. Henry V
(H/T to C.E. Petit)

Rewrite Experiment

I finally finished the rewrite of my most recent mystery story, The Body and the Bomb. It bloated a bit: up to almost 8,500 words, which makes me a little unhappy, but it’s better.

This was a bit of an experiment. I printed out the last draft, went through it with a pen -- then instead of opening up the original file, I typed it all back in. The theory here is that this is what writers used to have to do in the bad old days of typewriters and hand writing and clay tablets and oral tradition (that last one probably got ugly when you were really embarrassed about a draft). The results were mixed.

On the plus side, I had to give everything at least some attention. Having just finished a read-through, I had the whole thing in my head and I knew exactly where it was going. This was a great help in terms of deciding what clues had to go where, and which bits weren’t pointing in the right direction. I think that the result is a smoother piece of work. Also on the plus side was that I was more willing to junk large sections of text that I hadn't recopied yet. Heck, the laziness factor probably saved me a few hundred needless words. This was particularly true at the end: I had never been happy with the last two sections, and on retyping I just balked at doing all that work on something I thought was sub-par. This prompted me to produce what I consider a much better ending.

On the minus side, it was not nearly as helpful as I thought it would be in terms of making structural changes. Part of this was my failure to think ahead and put page breaks between sections, to see how things read in a different order. As a result, I focused far more on tactics rather than strategy, and had to go back through later to make the more sweeping high-level changes that the story needed. Also on the minus side was the fact that retyping was an opportunity to introduce new and interesting typos.

Bottom line for this experiment: It's a worthwhile thing to try, but only when I'm alread very happy with a draft, but when I expect to have the time and energy to go back through it again. I am not sure that this would work well for a much longer work, but I may try it.

Zombie Researchers

How many zombies do you know? Good question! Andrew Gelman, zombie researcher and statistician, explains while possibly saying something about social network analysis. (H/T to Marginal Revolution, who totally missed the point)

See also Lakeland’s analysis of the effect of education on mortality rates to zombie invasion. Basically, it doesn’t help. And really, that should have been predicted, because the last thing you need in a zombie attack is MORE BRAINS! No, the math plainly shows that we can be saved only by scantily-clad teenage zombie killers. You can’t argue with math, people. For Christ’s sake, there are graphs! GRAPHS!

Edit: Speaking of zombies, check out this abomination against nature. The dead walk again!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

24-Hour News, Summarized Neatly

Yeah, this is pretty much what all television news looks like to me.

Open Tabs 3

Hello again, just a quick summary of some of my more interesting open tabs:

A blog post on the economics of Star Trek. There are a lot of interesting questions, there. What is the effect on society of a near total lack of scarcity? You want something, you replicate it. In the Star Trek universe the writers had good incentives to try to find ways in which this breaks down: the need for exotic materials, large sized objects, energy budgets, etc. One of the commenters points out that Charlie Stross has not only looked into the subject as well, but came up with a very clever way of showing how different societies might treat the issue differently.

Michael Weingrad asks why there isn't a Jewish Narnia (and why there is otherwise a relative dearth of Jewish fantasy writers), and why that might be changing.

Looks like I might get to fiddle with a Pixel Qi display this fall, that's exciting. I suspect that swapping it into my Mac would be a pain, but I have a netbook with about the right size screen that I might be willing to sacrifice.

Wil Shipley's recollections from this year's TED conference. Still open because I haven't quite finished reading it, but the bit about Stephen Wolfram is what makes it stick in my head: I had occasion briefly to meet Wolfram when he gave a talk here some years back on cellular automata shortly after A New Kind of Science came out. The talk itself I remember as being somewhat... meh... but I was deeply impressed that he stayed for a good hour afterward to answer questions.

The latest entry in Steven Strogatz's New York Time math blogging series, this one on geometry.

A discussion of the Information Commons that I'm still trying to wrap my head around

... and finally, my sentence of the day, courtesy of the always-interesting Chuck Wendig:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Demands

It has undoubtedly come to your attention that an hour of your life has been stolen from you while you slept. I assure you, it is nothing personal, only my greatest heist ever! I have accumulated over 250 million stolen hours from the United States alone, and I have no intention of returning them... unless my demands are met. I want one billion dollars is deposited in my Swiss bank account. I want a helicopter for my getaway. I want a small island in the Pacific (Not a leper island. And not too big, seriously, they're such a pain to clean) I also want a Swiss bank account.

If my demands are not met, your hours will not be returned to you. Nor will the time it took you to read this post.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Crazy Busy, With Crash Blossoms

Hey, I’ve been pretty absent lately: after being stuck in Texas for most of a week, I came down with the cold of doom (which I naturally passed on to everyone around me...sorry) and then spent a great deal of time finishing up a paper that I’m going to be presenting this April. I haven’t had a lot of spare time. (Not that blogging should be only or predominantly a spare-time activity!)

Anyway, I’m still catching up on work and other things, and getting ready to post the next few entries on Christie’s Labors of Hercules (as augmented by a book I just finished containing copies of some of her notes for those stories! Excitingly intrusive!), but in the meantime, go read about crash blossoms: newspaper headlines just ambiguous enough to bring our reading comprehension to a screeching halt. (The term originates here)

Quick reminder

The MacHeist nanobundle is about to expire. Monkey Island is unlocked!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Second Draft

I’ve finished the second draft of The Body and the Bomb -- up to almost 7,000 words now. I strengthened the co-investigator character, making her a bit less of a Watson, and added a couple interviews to fill in some gaps. It’s got a nuclear weapon, and black market human organs, and a pyramid scheme. Fun, fun fun.

If anyone wants to give it a read and offer feedback, let me know. I think I’ve plugged all the logical leaks -- and yes that’s a challenge!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Your Chef for the Evening Is Rebooting

I was just reading a NY Times article about robot cooks. With Japan, food, and robots, this is an article written just for me. And hey: a pan-handling robot that drinks beer! What’s not to like?

They’re all very cool, representing remarkable technical skill, and probably many long nights in the lab. But I think the reporter is missing the point of those humanoid chef-robots, judging by the juxtaposition of those with the work of the CMU Human-Robot Interaction team.

Allow me to explain in a roundabout way: There are already machines that make ramen (maybe not ones that also have knife-fights, but bear with me here) and otherwise perform many of the other tasks here. For many individual tasks, the use of a humanoid robot or arm robot represents a lack of imagination: the mental agility to imagine how a task would be performed with an unrestricted body type often comes up with far more ingenious and efficient ways of doing it.

In fact, I’d say that very few tasks really require humanoid robots. I can’t think of any off-hand. For any individual task, there will almost always be a better form. But this is not to say that it is a bad idea to develop humanoid robots, far from it. The promise of a humanoid robot, and ultimately the (proper?) motivating factor behind many of these prototypes is the same as the promise of an iPhone or something of that ilk: A flexible device that seamlessly becomes one of any number of other single-purpose devices. This is distinct from a personal computer in some important ways, but right now the primary importance is of *doing* one thing at a time (whatever else it may be *thinking*, if you want to put it that way). By adding more cooking jobs to the general robotic repertoire, they’re converging on a suite of tasks for which the humanoid form probably is better-suited.

Microsoft Robotics also kind of gets this, I think. They ought to, anyway, as it is an analogue to Microsoft’s original strategy and success: of standardizing the slow part (the hardware) to focus on doing as much as possible with the fast part (the software). A humanoid robot (or more simply a single arm) can mechanically do just about any task they might desire (if inefficiently), so if we standardize on that ideal, the software and the logic can take a more central place. It represents a sort of design convergence: when you try to combine tasks into the simplest possible hardware, the more human tasks you add, the more human the hardware is going to look.

As for the people focused on human-robot interaction, there are interesting research questions there, and good science being done. But that research, to my mind, is not so much robotics research as it is human research with some very difficult test equipment: kind of like when zoologists design puppets that baby animals will feed from. (I really wish I could find a copy of a particular Calvin and Hobbes to link to here. It’s in “There’s Treasure Everywhere”, page 148)

Anyway, that’s my two cents on the subject. (And keep in mind that I’ve never actually done humanoid-robotic research, having focused entirely on rover-types, so I could be totally off-base)

Oh! If after reading that article you’re wondering what okonomiyaki is, by the way, it’s often referred to as a cabbage pancake or pizza. It’s... neither, really, or maybe both. I’m familiar with Osaka-style okonomiyaki, but as anyone will tell you, it can vary wildly, especially by region. For me, the little okonomiyaki-ya outside my dorm at Gaidai is the only true form: You take a batter of flour, potato starch, egg, and shredded cabbage, and spread it out on a hibachi table for some high heat, usually spread on top of some kind of meat filling like bacon or shrimp. Flip it once (so the ‘filling’ is now on top), finish cooking, then top it. The traditional toppings, to my mind, are a thick sugary sauce (like yakisoba sauce or BBQ sauce), Japanese mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and powdered seaweed. It’s... tastier than it sounds? I like it, anyway.

One final thing: I’m trying out new blog software -- MacJournal 5 from the most recent MacHeist. The interface isn’t too bad, and I do like the ability to keep separate journals in the same interface, plus locally-organized stuff: one of my big complaints for my current writing software is that it’s difficult to manage multiple projects.

Tagging seems to be more difficult compared to the web form, which autocompletes and shows me a list of tags I’ve already used.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Mac user? The MacHeist NanoBundle2 is up. As usual, the more people get it, the more things go into the bundle for everyone. As UNusual, one of those items (unlocked at 50,000 bundles) is the full Tales of Monkey Island series! Y'know, the games otherwise known round these parts as "Those games he won't shut up about".

Don't Shock a Flatline

... or this person will come to your home and beat you with a wet chicken. But only after a fascinating discussion of cardiac behavior!
That's got to be my new favorite blog.

Out the door!

I bet you thought I forgot about Viable Paradise! Not so, I sent off my application this morning. I admit though, that I did dither a bit: I just finished a draft of a story that I like better, another mystery entitled "The Body and the Bomb". But when push came to shove, that one was just not polished enough and could take months to bring up to the level where it would be a good representative piece.

Unfortunately, all I have of "Death in a Tin Can" (my submission piece) is the PDF, thanks to a rather nasty bug in either the software I use or the MobileMe service which wrecked the RTF bundle I'd originally written in, so I need to hurry and reconstruct the RTF for the electronic part of the submission, which should be in their hands before the physical copy arrives. Fortunately I'm working from an RTF only a week older than the PDF, but it's aggravating nonetheless...

Wish me luck!