Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Levee Town

I watched lots of stats marshalling on my CBS TV last night, mostly about approval/dis of that Oval Office guy (oval like a cowboy hat they tell me -- so like how many gallons?). In this skit I imagine, some pollster's on the phone: "so whaddya think of the job our prez is doin'?" Ten minutes later, phone rings again: "so how 'bout now?"

It's those levees that've got my attention. Like, I wouldn't move back or invest if I thought The Flintstones were still in charge. Ol' Hurricane Harry of 2010 might obliterate my casino again. And what about those pumps? They tell me one of the last to croak was this 1929 jobber. True? Makes a good story anyway. And some giant screw of Archimedes by Leonardo himself, was still turning at 10 feet under (!) -- not that this helped much.

I recall some dinner conversation in Portland, many months before Katrina, where I soaked up some talk about those levees. New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen, was the gist of it. I listened, wide eyed, incredulous, as if to some episode of Believe It or Not. Little did I realize how soon would come my chance to believe.

And at that St. Helen's viewing center north of here, they show this movie about Mt. Rainier having a bad hair day, shuffing off a glacier or two (no big eruption or anything, just a hiccup, or a sigh), and what that might be like. Picture a sudden river/tsunami smashing through used car lots, playgrounds, Burger Kings. Did the people evacuate in time?

And that IMAX movie: there's this pattern of earthquakes, marching rather predictably it seems, with Istanbul (or some suburb thereof) in the cross-hairs. The older mosques have already weathered a few and are still standing. It's the speculators who throw up the cheap apartments, cut corners against code, play dice with the lives of Allah's children.

Bottom line: many disasters have been queued by Mother Nature, a few of which we're even half expecting. God to humans: "you'll need to stay alert." Humans: (lost in some soap) "upgrading those levees will just have to wait Mr. Almighty Sir, we've gotta keep winning against those godless communists!" Satan snickers. Remember the story: angels were deeply jealous God had found this new love, these wingless humans, and the meaner ones (Satan the meanest) just love it when we goof up big time.

Another skit: journalists break into the Pentagon, inner sanctum, expecting to find all these maps of the Middle East, but it turns out everyone's focused on levees, earthworks, evacuation plans, other civil engineering. "We haven't been into war planning for years," some general confides sheepishly, "that's more a big business thing." Cutaway to Raytheon or other beltway bandit hide-out: now here's a real war room (very reassuring) and yep, a war with Iran might mean selling a few hundred cruise missiles through Congress (kaching!).

And hey, speaking of cruise missiles, did anyone even ask if the word "tomahawk" might be copyrighted? I bet they owe billions and won't pay. Them forked tongue lawyers never pay -- the Injuns learned that early -- far cheaper to just change the law.

Rrrring. "So how 'bout now?"

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Boosting Bandwidth

A Math World
(click for larger view)

So if a picture is worth 1K words, then 30 frames/sec = 30K words/sec. That's a lot of info.

Of course the real differences between frames may be small (static background). MPEG capitalizes on that. Gregory Bateson: information = differences that make a difference.

An MTV generation has grown up on fast cuts, slick editing, making music on a multitrack (if privileged), but then comes formal schooling and a sudden slow-down.

One can hear the gears shearing, the cultures clashing.

Like in math class: the... teacher... talks... really... slowly... as she squeaks out some chalkboard algebra, back to the room (spit ball, paper airplane -- anything to add bandwidth (starvation is painful)).

Nothing dances, nothing moves.

Typical adult response: kids have been spoiled by TV, can't concentrate, short attention spans, need drugs (the legal ones). Oh and Johnny, I'll be late coming home from work: watch TV or something.

How about we try meeting them at least half way? I'm thinking of math movies, DVD clips, flashy shorts with high production values. Abacus, subtract in base 10, then in base 8. Play Tom Lehrer's New Math in the background. Lots of video collage (mix in some history: sputnik, Eisenhower, Weisenheimer).

Then let kids dream up their own, editing/recombining from a growing stash of stock footage. Mix 'n match. Hip hop TV, and with some real academic content.

Slow down for talking heads, sure (caution: heads talking).

I'm not saying only teach this way. But at least let's give it a try. I've seen so few good examples to date (Power of Nightmares was pretty good, showed off lots of media literacy, but not much in the way of math).

I know this culture is capable of more, much more. We take pride in our media savvy, yet so often refuse to use it except to push an easy credit, consumer-based lifestyle, combined with fantasies of being one of those smart people on TV (some doctor, cop, or lawyer -- rarely a priest anymore, unless it's Robert de Niro on late night cable, or maybe TBN).

The rest of the world watches our endlessly dumbing it down and rightly wonders: how low will they go?

Sesame Street was something of a breakthrough, but Big Bird doesn't know anything about icosahedra, vectors, or complex numbers (or if he does, he isn't sharing).

Related posts:
Math on video.google.com (the early days) @ the Math Forum
Another Alien Curriculum
Follow-up thinking on edu-sig @ python.org
Follow-up thinking on math-teach @ Math Forum

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Back from Catalina

Avalon in February
(photo by K. Urner, Olympus Stylus 500)

After a couple blissful days watching breaking waves on Catalina, a movie makers' haven, I'm back in the world of "breaking news" on airport monitors.

CNN's "Situation Room" aesthetic seems especially shrill, more like a panic room. Whatever happened to simply monitoring events vs. squeezing them for cheap thrills?

Last night CNN was all about fungus in our pillows, close ups of dust mites. I suggest buying a Kirby if that's your concern; they suck pillows big time.

Today we're all up in arms about globalization, as if there's no discernable difference between UAE and OBL (they're both "Arab" right?).

Some idiots blow up a mosque and now it's civil war -- seems there's a real appetite for it, an eagerness for the next disaster, the next spectacle. Will TV be used to fan the flames or cool them? The medium works wonders either way.

OK I'm venting a bit. I've come down with a mild case of misanthropy. I'll shake it soon I hope.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Welcome to Reality

Writer / Director Stephanie Cooper
(photo by K. Urner)

Stephanie Cooper’s Welcome to Reality, a play in nine scenes, is set in Lone Oak, a small New England town wherein all the adults have committed to a rationalist / literalist mode of thinking, with two exceptions: a science fiction writer who speaks of his characters as if they were real, and a civil war buff who believes he was once a rebel captain (sometime before the car accident).

These latter two have no problem relating to Hannah, an eight year old with an imaginary friend, Mr. Teddy the giraffe.

But Hannah’s mother and grandmother take the majority view that an imaginary friend is but a stepping stone to madness. Hannah should be focusing on learning to count past 29 (she has trouble with 30). They and other townspeople conspire to drum the two quirky eccentrics out of town, because of their supposedly subversive influence on the children.

Ironically, many of these hyper-rationalist adults later prove defenseless against meme epidemics spreading through popular culture: Hannah’s father gets sucked in by the Left Behind series, and dissolves his family in order to preach about the coming Rapture in Washington, DC, while Hannah’s grandmother spends her life’s savings on a “Da Vinci tour” in France, organized around Dan Brown’s popular novel, The Da Vinci Code.

I took Stephanie’s theme to be the danger in not recognizing and nurturing the double-barrel nature of the human psyche. We’re designed to think both logically and mythically. Those who fail to responsibly mythologize as free-standing individuals tend to fall prey to mob mythologies created and propagated by others.

To stifle one’s powers of imagination, so evident in childhood, is to risk lowering ones immunity against oft times predatory and/or opportunistic belief systems in later life.

The actors, a cast of sixteen, put a lot of time and talent into this one-time performance of Stephanie’s senior project. Our venue: Ms. Brunel’s drama classroom at Whittier High School, on the evening of February 17, 2006.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

American Islam

There's nothing to stop Islam from being a politically constructive player on the USA domestic scene. Malcolm X was a trail blazer in this regard.

These emerging schools needn't take direction from overseas. As a Quaker, I look forward to working with a pacifist branch that understands the Lamb's War, i.e. we're in a battle for hearts and minds, fighting against fear, corruption and tyranny. Outward weapons are for losers.

The Pentagon is shifting gears to focus less on nukes and more on psychological warfare, a positive development (long overdue), and not inconsistent with a warrior class value system, per many Asian examples.

The idea of a war for freedom and liberty isn't specifically Christian (indeed, many Christians hate our freedoms as surely as some Muslims do).

As a secular state, we're free to learn from Islamic schools about how to resist terrorism and parasitism in all their ugly forms.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


mosque in Alabama, by Temcor

Nuclear weapons = sin (pride, hubris, Satan -- see Paradise Lost).

Allah to humans: be loyal, disarm.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (movie review)

A real joy on this DVD is director Paul Schrader's commentary, which frames what's already a multi-level puzzle box of art about art. The film weaves grayscale memories with color-themed theatrical excerpts from Mishima's works, within the outer frame of the artist's final performance, a kind of paramilitary maneuver and homage to bushido culture.

Mishima was a great post-WWII Japanese writer who, with the rise of film and television, morphed into a media celebrity and cult figure. He used his prominence to make a statement, signed with the blood of his own surreal and spectacular suicide, along with that of his adjutant, on November 25, 1972.

Scharder's postmortem commentary in November 2000, at the Lucas Skywalker Ranch, provides insights into the intricate dynamics behind the making of this 1985 film, which resulted in its being temporarily suppressed in Japan, where Mishima, survived by his widow, remained a controversial figure. Just making this film took guts, especially if one were Japanese (the foreigners were expected to be insensitive and reckless).

My thanks to Trevor Blake for putting me on to this film, and to Netflix for making it easy to come by.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

More Adventures in Quakerdom

informative brochure from an outward weaponry museum
(from the chronofile of Annis and George Bleeke)

Tara and I drove out Hwy 26 towards Mt. Hood, to Road 39 past Rhododendron, a small town with a cool relic: a junked articulated bus, extravagantly tagged, likely one of those Hungarian jobbers we used in Portland for some years (they proved a maintenance nightmare). MMM clerk Peter Ford and I snapped pix when going back to the Rhododendron food market in search of garlic and mustard (we found both).

Dawn stayed home to work on the books for MMM (which she converted from Peachtree to Quickbooks) and NPYM among others. I complained to Annis Bleeke that Quakers want too much for their dime, the way my wife gets chained to her computer like that. But of course this was not her doing.

I tried to help with her sudoku puzzle but it had a five-star difficulty rating and Annis, of sound logical mind, obviously didn't much need my help.

I studied her three ring binders, a chronofile of the Bleekes' FWCC adventures for those years when Annis was General Secretary. She had a lot of Africa pix. Annis and George helped me immensely with logistics in Lesotho in 2000, in the wake of the October 13 car accident; the estate sale went very smoothly thanks to them.

Anyway, while we were standing in line, waiting for food, Janet asked if I'd reconsider being the webkeeper for NPYM, now that Steering Committee had implemented some of my suggestions around boosting network security and smoothing turnover around the webkeeper position. I said OK. So my name goes back to nomcomm, and I'll likely be assuming my new duties soon.

Addendum: nope, nomcomm decided to go with someone else, which is good, as it looks like I'll be heading to Switzerland around the time of NPYM's Annual Session this year (combined with FGC).

Friday, February 10, 2006


photo by K. Urner, Feb 10, 2006

I usually collect my bizmo pix over in Bizmo Diaries, but I'd just been posting on funding services for children, so I thought here might be apropos.

Outside In is one of our social service agencies working with youth.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Fund the Children?

I just got a solicitation call from a nonprofit tasked with publishing a directory of missing children, a kid finder, a locator of some kind.

It sounded extremely important, and apparently this directory is often used by Multnomah County social services, to assist in its job of providing assistance to juveniles and their families.

I did not offer to send any money. Why?

Because I think County services should get the taxes it needs to generate these directories minus any need to go begging.

That's a problem in this country: anyone with a worthy cause has to beg, while anyone with a sure-fire way to make dough, all ethics aside, is assured of a friend in Congress.

There's gotta be some happier medium, even without crossing that dreaded line into 20th century socialism. 20th century capitalism: it's your company that owns that computer, so use it to do company work, not personal work. Works great if you're a company prez like me, of some nebulous Global Data dot net.

Of course I don't want the guy who phoned me just now to lose his job. I want him to work full time helping with that missing children situation, not begging for hand-outs. Same with Congress, they deserve more freedom from special interests. Like, we make them need gobs of money, just to stay in the game, but then say "oh, but bribery is illegal."

In the original USA theory, elections could be run cheaply, and some worthy individual with drive, but shallow pockets, could get a crack at holding office. Holding office wasn't supposed to be an exclusively rich man's game, not even high office (we differed from Britain in that way). Not even exclusively men (still tends to be though, at least as long as it's war time).

That's all gotten stretched out of kilter by now. Elections were made super expensive (not to mention untrustworthy), and you had to be on the take somehow, just to get inside the beltway. Going back to the old ways won't be easy on any national level.

That's why I'm suggesting we start local and small. Like, let the County do its job, don't make it beg to save the children. Let's just save the children already. That's just our job, as older adults, s'been that way since prehistory (and not just if we're penguins).

Icosa Globes

student projects suspended from the classroom ceiling
(photo by K. Urner)

Sixth graders in Portland study plate tectonics (Pangea, subduction plates, geological stratification, volcanoes and earthquakes) using these paper fold-up globes.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Congress at War

Congress keeps suckering for this "nation at war" hypothesis, and so eagerly swallows a lot of other bunk, in its mad scramble to please big ticket defense lobbyists.

Like, of course we're at war, the most profitable damn war the weaponry pros have ever seen: open ended, an inexhaustable supply of dispensible bad guys, enough religious righteousness to fuel a simmering armageddon to kingdom come. And so let's keep recruiting those extras, those fanatics we love to see killed.

But doesn't Congress have the power to say, "hey wait a minute, we're done with this war"? That's happened before. Wars get called off. People go back to being civilians. Soldiers come home from the front. Why isn't that happening? Doesn't anyone ever win eventually?

No, that's the whole point: Congress needs to keep certain people happy, come hell or high water (we've had a lot of both). So war it shall be, grimly, gravely, with much pageantry and show. A circus for the masses.

Welcome to Rome.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

History is Surreal

Nixon in China

Or there's this thread in Synergetics Dictionary (Applewhite): only the impossible happens.

This picture has the look of one of those posed propaganda posters, but for what episode of Alien World?

"Another day in the twilight zone" might be a good caption.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Meeting @ Wired with Sam Lanahan

Sam and I had a jovial and convivial meeting regarding his latest explorations in the geometry of Flexblox. We had coffee, plus he had a scone, me a Guinness ("the better breakfast beer").

Then, using the Toshiba (my main machine, although KTU2 is behaving better lately) we oggled pavilions going up in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. That bird's nest and bubble prism are breath-takingly bold.

I also used the opportunity to share some of my own strategy maps, which center around an old theme in this blog: OSCON versus NCTM. I use these two conferences to typify two directions in math/engineering: towards a bright future of open source and tech savvy kids; towards a dreary and pedantic world of more of the same (and lots of clueless adults grousing about how dumb the kids seem to be these days).

I'm sure NCTM doesn't appreciate being the symbol of all that is dreary, but just use your own powers of research and track down how many references to Medal of Freedom winner R. Buckminster Fuller you find in the last 20 years of "OK with NCTM" text books. How much synergetics-friendly mathematics?

The NCTM even changed its own logo to make it less likely to remind us of an octet truss.

Don't tell me these Stalinesque cover-ups of huge swatches of history only take place in totalitarian countries. Take any large enough bureaucracy of gutless enough wonders, and watch your edgy little design science curriculum turn into some "safe enough for everyone" pablum.

Fortunately, our nation is still free enough to not get all marching orders from pedantic and narrow-minded bureaucrats. We have many ways to bypass curricula which don't treat our students with the dignity and respect they deserve e.g. by short changing them regarding their heritage as Americans. We have the Internet. We have television. We have music. The future looks bright.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Voting Machines

I caught Lynn Landes on The Ed Schultz Show, KPOJ AM, PDX, somewhere around 2:45 PM today. She's a journalist suing the civilian authorities to recover transparency in voting, and now has a docket number with the US Supreme Court.

From the sound of it, she's against using machines entirely, at least in their present form, which makes sense, as their transparency is near zero.

So could we ever ensure a computerized voting system was honest? I imagine ballot type objects, each with a unique ID, and able to reconstitute as printed objects any time we like. Plus the ID numbers collate under each candidate, forming a cross-check. Historians get to download the bulk data in some standard format and analyze the hell out of it.

We keep it anonymous by not linking ballot ID numbers to people -- which doesn't mean we lose control on how many or which people get to vote (it's just how they vote that we don't track, not how many times).

With this infrastructure in place, one could randomly create fictitious ballots with known content and shunt then through the system, having them originate with the real votes, indistinguishably therefrom, at the precinct level.

In the final count, we would see if our fictitious ballots had been credited properly, as we'd have their ID numbers, which would then become public as not-counted audit checks. Since the ballot stuffers would come from a black box (stored in more than one location, including with election watch dogs), no vote counter would have a way to tell them apart from bona fide votes. Any significant miscounting would show up in the postmortem, perhaps voiding the results.

American Express uses a similar technique to spike proprietary mailing lists; if your store sends junk mail to the list more times than it paid for, various bogus addresses get pinged too many times, and your store gets called on the mat.

An interesting design question: should we give individuals privileged access to their own ballot ID number? Then it's their secret to keep or reveal. I could go to the data base via web form, ballot ID in hand, and call up my own voting record.

Any changes to any of my votes would be immediately obvious to me, although without the printed receipt (not counterfeited) no one would have to believe me if it said I'd wanted Chicken Little for president.

Some people might keep their ballot receipts just long enough to verify their choices were recorded properly (the ID number links to candidates' names in the relational data base), then destroy them.

Here's an idea: since the NSA is getting more involved on the domestic front, thanks to Al Qaeda, why not have the NSA come up with some new voting machine infrastructure, or at least the specifications? A consortium of universities could assist with this project.

Network security is a key specialty at the NSA. If our ability to accurately count the votes is being impaired by some kind of behind-the-scenes skulldudgery, our USG security establishment should be all about uprooting that.

The integrity of our USA codes is undermined to the extent we're unable to establish an unbroken link to the actual will of we the people. The legitimacy of the courts themselves depends on protecting the integrity of this social contract.

Congress has seemed remarkably reluctant to take this bull by the horns and address the widespread concerns of ordinary Americans that our system is broken. Maybe the executive and/or judicial branches will show more backbone?