Happily ever after

November 17th, 2012  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

In December 2011, Apple filed for a patent on page-turning animations in software. This patent was granted last week. Now there’s nothing left to keep Apple from suing MicroIllusions into oblivion:

(I’m still trying to discover whether or not Apple has also patented a system and method for ensuring that a user has the map from the original packaging before allowing him to play the game.)

Meet Rolf Joseph

November 8th, 2012  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

I’m pleased to introduce you to Rolf Joseph Benton, who is one week old tonight! He arrived at 7:17 PM on All Saints’ Day, weighing 8.25 pounds and measuring in at 20 inches. Mom, baby, dad, and siblings are all doing well and thoroughly delighted. I’ve posted some newborn photos below; more are available in this Flickr set from the hospital.

The kids meet their baby brother
Happy dad

Regarding poisoned Halloween candy

November 1st, 2012  |   |  1 Comment

Sure, you probably figured that it was an overblown scare story based on a very few isolated cases, but did you realize that the notion of tainted Halloween candy is essentially baseless? (I suspect that irrational attachment to this myth is more common among those who experienced the national media panic around the Chicago Tylenol murders at an impressionable age.) At this point, my only childhood fears that still seem justified in retrospect are earthquakes and nuclear war with the Soviets.

Dirty minimalism

October 15th, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I’ve long been interested in the Disquiet Junto music-making assignments, and have even started efforts at some, but haven’t gotten anything actually presentable until this week’s assignment: “Produce an original piece of music that fits the genre “‘dirty minimalism,’” which benefited from just the right combination of inspiration and a few rare blocks of contiguous free time.

My song, “the concept ‘horse’ is a concept easily understood” is available on SoundCloud or as an AAC download.

My basic idea was to do something in a rock or post-rock idiom that nonetheless has many of the hallmarks of what I consider minimalism: ostinati, shifting polyrhythms, and gradual introduction of pitch classes, new timbres, and layered sounds. Of course, minimalism-influenced rock is nothing new, but most such work (like this track) is necessarily temporally compressed when compared to minimalist concert music. Bitcrushing, phasing, frequency-shifting, and general sloppy technique (which I’ve been working on perfecting for some time) contribute to the “dirty” aspect. (I considered introducing a sparse bowed-guitar solo over the top of this — after all, I like those a lot — but didn’t think I’d have time to introduce it and maintain the minimalist aesthetic.)

This was a lot of fun.

Ironic optics

October 5th, 2012  |   |  Leave a comment

When your business is republishing other peoples’ stories with only the thinnest pretense of added value beyond your own ads and keyword-friendly headlines, you shouldn’t be surprised when you embarrass yourself. Nonetheless, it would be hard for me to imagine a more hilariously ironic juxtaposition than that between the subject of this Business Insider article and their copy of the video it describes. (See also “Thoughts on Flash.”)

Coptic fragments

September 21st, 2012  |  Tags: , ,  |  9 Comments

Many (primarily secular) scholars are interested in the very few fragments we have from the Gnostics and other adherents of long-extinguished Christian heresies. For Christians, these writings are interesting for the same reasons that heresies that got more traction or have more extant documentation are interesting: it’s fascinating to identify why something is wrong and to identify its eventual consequences; furthermore, most of the contemporary heresies that we should like to avoid are not particularly original. For general journalists who don’t actually know that much about Christian history (or, I suspect, any serious Christians), these writings are interesting because of the unsupported expectation that they should “[prove] deeply troubling” to believers.1

The latest in this series is the discovery of a 4th-century Coptic scrap that includes the line “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….'” The researcher behind the announcement is very careful to indicate that this fragment — even if is authentic and has been correctly interpreted — only tells us what some people recorded and believed about Jesus of Nazareth several centuries after the Gospels and Pauline epistles were recorded and not anything about Jesus himself. However, most of the mainstream press have been presenting this discovery as a major scandal that shakes the foundations of Christian orthodoxy and is absolutely sure to impact everything from Roman Catholic clerical celibacy to gender-role debates around the margins of traditional churches. (I first heard of this story from Jason Kottke, whose gloss on the story misses the point in the same way as most media reports.)

In a related story, I was recently cleaning my basement. While so doing, I found a scrap of white paper, dated May 1998, with shocking new evidence that will change how we see the genesis of early philosophy of mathematics:

IMG 5532

This fragment is damaged and stained, and the script is obscure. But I consulted with a historical graphologist, who was able to give me a transcription:

I can’t believe
I just beat Blaise
Pascal in a cutthroat
game of Mario Kart!
He had the blu[e?]…
shell and every[…]

I’ve had to keep this discovery embargoed while validating the fragment with other scholars, but we’re reasonably convinced that it is authentic. We’ve determined that “Mario Kart” refers to an electronic game that was popular roughly 33 decades after Pascal’s death (and, coincidentally, towards the end of my undergraduate career), and that the “blu[e] shell” was a rare game piece of great power that could almost guarantee victory for the player lucky enough to possess it. Our analysis is that Pascal lost his interest in explaining the world through probability after even the bonne chance of acquiring such an advantage failed to help him win the game.

We have not yet concluded whether or not a wager was involved.

1 cf. this NYT article about the “Gospel of Judas” from a few years ago.

Wheatless pancakes

August 29th, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  1 Comment

I made pancakes this morning for my son, who needed sustenance for his first day of first grade. I’ve meant to post this recipe for a long time; it is notable because it produces pancakes that contain no wheat but that still taste like pancakes. Click on the image for a printable PDF.

wheatless pancake recipe

Optional tweaks:

  • The flour mixture given produces good results, but many others will as well. Try substituting sweet sorghum flour for the rice flour, or replacing a few tablespoons of the rice or oat flour with potato starch.
  • Add 1/2 cup of rolled oats to the batter for pancakes with superior texture.
  • Many sweeteners will work. I’ve used agave nectar and maple syrup, for example. I suspect coconut sugar would also work really well.
  • Four women react to Pitchfork‘s best-albums list: “Honestly I think it takes some things to have the energy to make one of those: a) some degree of narcissism to assume that literally anyone cares what albums you like b) enough self esteem to believe your choices are correct or to not care if people disagree with you or think less of you because of which albums you like c) the fastidious patience to actually complete a task that is based mainly in narcissism.”

  • I thought that regarding undergraduate tuition as ludicrously inflated was uncontroversial. (Indeed, my alma mater has increased tuition by over 275% in 15 years and eliminated any claims of being a good value from its marketing collateral.) But when the New York Times is publishing op-eds arguing that $50k private high school tuition is unsustainable — and that the solution is for these schools to raise tuition — perhaps my views are more radical than I thought.



    Taken in Grinzing, Austria on our honeymoon in 2001.


They’re playing our song

August 4th, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I suspect that I went on the best second date in recorded human history as a junior in college. The venue was the old Dakota club in St. Paul, where a stunning young woman and I sat about four feet from the Turtle Island String Quartet for a few hours. (Indeed, we were so close to the performers that I was able to offer David Balakrishnan a beer and some French fries at one point.)

A few years later, Andrea and I were getting off a boat at Templar Park on Spirit Lake, IA, when an unctuous fellow in a tuxedo collared us and introduced himself as “[our] Total Entertainment Solution.” This man continued, keeping us away from our guests while relaying a great deal of what seemed at the time to be irrelevant information. Since we hadn’t arranged for a Total Entertainment Solution, we were briefly confused before realizing that our wedding DJ had grander plans for himself than a more straightforward self-identification would allow.

Unlike most of the other wedding-related contractors, we had never met the Total Entertainment Solution in person before, but he had sent us a questionnaire to state our Total Entertainment preferences in excruciating detail. The questionnaire itself was dense and long enough to recall a pre-donation screening from the Red Cross. (“No, I have never eaten beef or organ meats in a Burmese prison. I am also not interested in the ‘Electric Slide.'”) It also required us to make one of the most difficult aesthetic compromises1 of the wedding-planning process: we had always considered the Turtle Island String Quartet’s “Ensenada”2 to be “our song,” but we didn’t think we’d have the foxtrot skills to pull it off at the reception. So, when the Total Entertainment Questionnaire asked for “our song,” we answered with something inoffensive and easy to dance to: Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

We soon discovered that Total Entertainment Solution took the answers to his questionnaire rather less seriously than would the Red Cross. Line dancing, “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and a ridiculous set of embarrass-the-couple games all figured as parts of our Total Entertainment despite our repeated insistence to the contrary. But the one part of the Total Entertainment Questionnaire that made an impression was “our song,” which we had decided upon roughly two weeks before the wedding date. By the second or third time we had danced to Mr. Presley’s ballad, with increasingly overwrought and sentimental introductions each time, I was beginning to suspect that the Total Entertainment Solution was teasing us for not practicing ballroom dance more.

It’s funny how we ascribe importance to accidental things that happen in the midst of emotionally-charged times. I imagine that I’ll always think of “Ensenada” as that special song that my wife and I share, but after eleven years of adventures with my best friend, I’m unable to suppress a smile when hearing the tune that substituted for it on a sweltering Iowa evening. I usually prefer a cover version, though:

Happy anniversary, Andrea.

1 Other difficult decisions included standard truncated-torus rings instead of Möbius-strip rings and reaching the conclusion that I wouldn’t have time to arrange the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for the processional. (I wound up doing parts of the theme and final variation from the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn instead.)

2 Alas, this great tune is not available to link but here is an MP3 preview on Amazon.com.

Iced coffee notes

August 3rd, 2012  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Iced coffee

Marco Arment’s Aeropress iced coffee technique has my total endorsement.

I usually prepare hot espresso drinks even in the most ridiculous parts of summer and have never cared for typical iced coffee, but this is different. I have enjoyed a few small glasses over the last two days, mixed at about a 2:3 ratio of coffee concentrate to whole milk. (I did invert the Aeropress while preparing the concentrate, contrary to Arment’s suggestion.) As a bonus, drinking what is essentially a small caffé macchiato out of a rocks glass instantly makes one’s afternoon appear slightly more like a scene from The Big Lebowski.

    This was probably the second time I bought this album
    Found while cleaning the basement

    It’s amazing what hangs around in your basement when you’ve lived in the same house since finishing college. I also found some 5.25″ floppies, including ones that contained some of my oldest extant programs, which I wrote while taking a Logo course in the summer before third grade. (Like most nerds of a certain age, I wrote BASIC programs well before that age, but those are somewhere on Amiga-format disks or TI99/4A-formatted cassettes!)


  • Avid’s death spiral continues and has claimed the development team for Sibelius. This is terrible news. I was very good with Finale in college but switched to Sibelius for my (presently very limited) music-typesetting needs after I got my first Mac in 2002. The notation software world, which is not a likely candidate for disruption, will absolutely suffer without spririted competition.


The end of passwords?

August 1st, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

My pal Ben Brown (who has known me so long that he remembers a time when I could vote without antiemetics) has an interesting proposal to manage login credentials; Ben begins by describing a pattern that I’ve absolutely used for some infrequent-login sites:

My personal solution to the too-many-password problem is to use completely random, automatically generated password when I create an account. Most websites will allow me to stay logged in forever, and on the odd occasion that I need to log in again, a password reset tool will send a link to your email account that will allow me to login again. This way, I don’t really have a password, but I can always gain access to any account, as long as I still have access to my secure email account.

His solution is to eliminate passwords altogether and email a unique, expiring login link to users when they wish to log in. Read the whole piece (and his followup) for the argument, which I find convincing.

In fact, I used a variant of this approach for SVP, a service I developed because I hate Evite and wanted to invite people to my birthday party in 2007. (After all, most of my friends are too popular and sophisticated to be particularly happy about managing credentials for a one-off site that some curmudgeon made to avoid using the ubiquitous alternative.) When I’d invite people to events, they’d get an email with a link that would log them in to RSVP for that event. Users could set passwords, but the site interaction model was designed to never require them. It was pretty successful on a (very) small scale: I had around 50 invitees/users and probably ten events before I stopped using the service, but everyone who wanted to come over seemed to be able to reply and no one complained about it to my face.

  • I confess that I am wholly looking forward to discussing this episode, and many like it, with my children after they’ve encountered it as a case study in an undergraduate philosophy-of-science class.


Infographic horror

July 27th, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I don’t mean to pick on the Des Moines Register (certainly, they are not alone in offending this way), but this is one of the worst infographics I’ve ever encountered:

Terrible, content-free infographic

My inescapable first impression is of the amateurish presentation. Although I applaud continuing Myriad creep, the “centered sentence fragments” look is only appropriate if one seeks to evoke the menu for that restaurant that opened up a couple of months ago and then went out of business before you had a chance to check it out. (Indeed, one almost expects a fourth figure on this illustration: “$8 sashimi.”) Furthermore, I note that the TextEdit app that ships with Mac OS X does a better job of automatically kerning the word “BULL’S-EYE” than the Register’s illustrator did.

We’re above harping solely on presentation, though. Unfortunately, this image utterly fails on the content level. It asks a question and then presents three figures. The final figure is essentially irrelevant to the question (although, to be fair, it is unlikely that either candidate would blitz Iowa with ad buys were he running unopposed), and the first figure serves only to supply a sense of scale for the second. So we’re left with one figure that actually addresses the question. However, the explanation for the second figure actively argues against the assumption behind the question!

If we want to argue in simple, front-page chart form why Iowa is worth aggressive attention from presidential candidates, a much better place to start would be the data in this chart, which I found on 270towin.com after searching for Iowa’s historical presidential general election results:

Iowa history

The above illustration is not particularly information-dense, but it gives us two numbers that are actually useful: Iowa’s results are evenly split among the last ten elections between the Democratic and Republican candidate (so, unlike many states, it is not unrealistic for either candidate to win in any given year), and it has gone with the winner of the electoral vote count seven out of the last ten times (so it is a reasonable proxy for the national contest). Of course, we can’t draw a causal link from winning a bellwether state like Iowa to winning the electoral college, but perhaps campaigns believe that they can evaluate tactics in Iowa for use in similar swing states. (Or, less charitably, perhaps campaigns subscribe to the same cargo-cult notions of causality as elected politicians.)

Black boxes for bicyclists

July 20th, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

This NYT article poses an interesting solution to an ugly problem: if helmet cameras become ubiquitous, cyclists will be able to document the actions of malicious or negligent motorists — perhaps even to the point where our characteristically bike-indifferent (or bike-hostile) criminal justice system will be forced to take victims seriously. But I fear that point remains distant. Consider one of the example cyclists profiled in the article, who

[…] wears a camera on his helmet during his 50-minute commute each way between his home and office. He began riding with the device this year after buying a $7,000 velomobile, a three-wheeled recumbent cycle with a shell around it.

Let’s imagine a pretty clear-cut case: the victim’s attorney (or a prosecutor) presents impeccable footage of a driver hitting a cyclist because he was distracted while putting puppies and kittens in a blender; goose-stepping towards the victim while screaming offensive epithets; and, finally, driving away without providing insurance or contact information. The victim’s case would be doomed immediately upon cross-examination. Can you imagine an American jury finding in favor of someone once they learned that he captured the incident from a helmet camera while riding a $7,000 tricycle?

  • Kevin Drum at Mother Jones doesn’t like California’s high-speed rail plan, and he is extremely skeptical of absurd ridership projections: “We are rapidly exiting the realm of rose-colored glasses and entering the realm of pure fantasy here.”

    But keep your chins up, flyover friends: the fact that a high-speed rail line between densely-populated major world cities like SF and LA is a bad idea that will never avoid hemorrhaging money surely isn’t any reason to throw out the dream of a Madison-Milwaukee rail corridor.