Saturday, February 28, 2009

The destructive power of Wikipedia

Today I find myself defeated in a manner that often occurs to me -- I'll be excited by some idea and in the processes of experimenting with it, I'll end up on Wikipedia where my enthusiasm will be defeated by the overwhelming amount of knowledge instantly available.

I often have ill-formed ideas that need developing; I'll begin by jotting down any aspect of the fuzzy ideas that I can get into words with the hope that somehow it will become evident how to formalize as I go along. Then, in the middle of this exercise, I'll think "this part has been done before" and I'll go to Google. Within seconds I'll be bogged down in a Wikipedia page with a sense of "Look at all the stuff I don't know! 'Everybody' else understands this but me." Within a few minutes I find my creativity defeated by the overload of information -- a sense of "If I don't understand all this, then I'm just repeating existing work." Hours worth of creative enthusiasm can be deflated by this process in mere seconds; I find it very discouraging and creatively unhealthy.

I submit that in regards to creativity, Google, Wikipedia, etc. are dual-edged swords. On the one hand, the instant access to reference material supports experiments. But on the other hand, the instant connection to all knowledge easily overwhelms one's spirit for exploration with a sense of "everything is known already". I don't know how to balance these effects and today I am squarely on the defeated side.

Finished back wall masonry

I finished the last of the back wall masonry this morning. It's been mocking me for 2 weeks so nice to have it done. Acid washing is next.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

2009 People's Gallery New Installation

My piece "Elevator Goblins" was elected "2008 People's Choice" at the Austin City Hall. Unfortunately they can't afford to buy the piece (the amount they offered didn't even cover the cost of the camera!) However, because so many people seemed to have enjoyed it, I have decided to donate another year of a new piece entitled "Dragonflies". I like it better than the old piece as I'm now using infrared lights so that I don't have to project a white background and the dragonflies can seemingly live in the cracks of the natural stone. This new piece will open tomorrow Friday 20 Feb 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

End cap masonry

I spent the week programming things which do not yet work and thus have nothing graphically interesting to post. Here's progress on the end-cap of my rear-patio instead.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Completed brick seat wall

Weekends for 2 month and finally finished today (less acid washing). The end cap came out a little crooked as it was very difficult to get the unsupported bricks to stay vertical. I ended up propping chairs against them to hold them while setting. If I were to do it again, I would build an interior support and let it harden for a week and the affix the out bricks to that support as I did along the other walls.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dyslexia and entrepreneurship

Earlier this week I attended a gathering sponsored by the Kauffman foundation. They treated a few dyslexic entrepreneurs such as myself to two days in a lovely hotel in Phoenix. (The hotel was a posh spa-type place but being the nerd I am I didn't partake of any of that and instead was looking forward to watching some Mythbusters but they didn't have Discovery Channel. Everything there was exceptionally beautiful but, again being the nerd I am, the only pictures I took were of this nice brick wall in the hotel and this interesting cactus.) Thanks to Marge, Maryanne, Cinthia, and everyone at the Kauffman Foundation who put together this conference for inviting me to such fun exchange of ideas in such a lovely place.

The basis of the meeting was a claim that the set of entrepreneurs is enriched for dyslexia but I was never shown any evidence of this so maybe it's true, maybe not; we didn't have time to review the literature. Anyway, the point was to discuss the anecdotes of the various non-randomly chosen samples invited to this conference for a kind of informal hypothesis building. I wouldn't call what we arrived at as a working hypothesis (indeed there wasn't even much commonality to our traits) but the stories were interesting nevertheless.

There were a number of researchers and educators there. My particular role, as seems to often the case, was to play devil's advocate.

My principal thoughts were:

1. Educators understandably think of anyone who leaves school early as a "failure of the system". I emphatically opposed this view. I argued that while universal access to education is one of the greatest accomplishment of our civilization (indeed, I wouldn't want to live somewhere that didn't provide universal education) that nevertheless universal education is a modern concept and that we *gave up something* when we embraced it. I am not the only person in the world that was poisoned by education (indeed, there was at least one other at this meeting who said the same thing). This claim to educators often leads to: "But how could we make school better so people like you won't leave?" and I counter this with: "Why should you want to do that?" I submit that my value to society is *exactly because I'm an outsider*. The uniqueness of my views are at the core of my contributions both artistic and scientific. Ipso facto, one can't have an outsider perspective by coming from the inside! I know it's a hard argument to swallow as an educator, but there are some people like me who simply should not be educated. So while I appreciate the effort of trying to adapt the education system to meet everyone's needs, I reject the premise that it should be done. Now, how to tell people like me from those who aren't, that's a different question.

2. What evidence do we have that dyslexia is actually a disadvantage? Yes, being unable to read *at all* is a serious hardship and I'm glad I can read. But I read very slowly compared to most people. I can't help but suspect that it is because I read slowly that I both obtain and retain more detail than do my fast-reading friends. Who says that mine is the wrong tactic? (Indeed, I quipped that perhaps we need to go on a negative marketing campaign to bash all the fast-reading people and thereby advance our slow-reading cause!) I have friends who can read ten pages in the time it takes me to read one. On the one hand, that skill is a huge advantage in deciding which papers are relevant while researching. But on the other hand, I tend to remember more detail and consider each little point the author is making. When review science papers for example, our combined skills are better than the sum of the parts and therefore, as is often the case, diversity of skills is a very good thing! Why should we try to "fix" this?

3. Reading is improved with practice. The education system failed me in this respect because it couldn't adapt to this obvious and universally acknowledged fact. In all human undertakings some people are born with higher natural abilities in some disciplines over others. I might find computers intuitive while others might find running fast easy. But *everyone improves all skills with practice.* Indeed, anyone with practice can "beat" anyone with natural skill who never practices. In other words, practice nearly always accounts for more than natural skill. The most common reason for not improving at something is that the initial hurdle of practice is not overcome. If you are naturally poor at reading then it's no fun so you don't practice so you don't get better. The solution is obvious: read stuff that is *fun*! But fun, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; let dyslexic kids read what they want to. It's not a hard concept; yet most schools don't do this because they are slaved to a contrived government-mandated curriculum. Had someone told me it was okay to read a computer manual instead of some boring book like "Lord of the Flies" then I would have been a better reader by the time I was a teenager instead of having to wait until I got out of school and practiced as a young adult. If I was a teacher, here's what I would do if I met a ten year-old version of myself. I'd say: "What are you interested in?" The 10 year-old version of myself would probably reply "I don't know" and I'd respond with, "There must be something: Dinosaurs? Motorcycles? Computers? Movie Stars? Something!" This line of questioning would last for all of about 10 seconds before we hit something. "Oh, skateboards? Ok, cool, well here's a skateboarding magazine." I'd flip open the pages and find any stupid article on a skateboarding competition or whatnot and scan it for a few relevant details (sponsors, winners, etc) and then hand it over to the kid and say: "Give me an oral report on however much of this article you can make it through by the end of class." Do that exercise everyday in lieu of pointless discussions of characters in whatever idiotic state-mandated literature the rest of the class is supposed to read and by the end of the year that kid is going to be a better reader. It ain't rocket science! (And by the way, who can actually remember anything about any of the books you were assigned to read in junior high? Well, I can remember many of the things I read in the computer books at that age because I've been interested in those ideas ever since!)

Keyless Entry

Aaron and I finished the keyless entry to the house. There's a micro-controller in the basement (programmable from my computer) that monitors these three switches mounted discretely into the door frame that unlocks the door when the correct sequence is pressed. If the wrong sequence is pressed, the door locks for a long time so that randomly guessing accomplishes nothing and also can tell my computer to take your picture. When I have my outdoor speakers, I think I'll also add the sound of a cocking shotgun on error. :-)


Monday, February 2, 2009

Parameter Fitting Lecture

I gave a talk a few months ago about the new chemical kinetic parameter fitter that I've been working on with John Davis. It is a good introduction to the general problem of fitting model parameters and discusses how easy it is to confuse a good fit with a good model.
[PPT slides] [PDF slides]

Nerd v. Dork

There seems to be some confusion over the definition and distinction between nerds and dorks. Being both a nerd and a dork, I feel qualified to try to explain the distinction.

Nerdy is learning an ancient language.
Dorky is learning Klingon.

Nerdy is twittering the status of the Large Hadron Collider.
Dorky is twittering Magic the Gathering eBay auctions.

Nerdy is machining your own bicycle parts to make them more aerodynamic.
Dorky is riding a recumbent bicycle because it's more aerodynamic (and having an orange safety flag!).

Nerdy is eating at a fast-food restaurant because it optimizes the calories per dollar.
Dorky is eating at a fast-food restaurant because they have a batman collectible cup.

Nerdy is making cartographic illustrations of the Riemann Zeta function on Wikipedia.
Dorky is making cartographic illustrations ofTatooine on Wookiepedia. (Thanks to Aaron)

Nerdy is evolving ribozymes as biomarkers.
Dorky is evolving a five armed lizard in Spore.

Nerdy is keeping up to date with copyright and patent laws.
Dorky is keeping up to date with the bi-laws of the Society for Creative Anachronisms.

Nerdy is making a wind chime tuned to mixolydian mode.
Dork is setting your ring tone to the theme from Close Encounters.

Nerdy is configuring your living room for X10 home automation.
Dorky is configuring your living room as a World of Warcraft sanctuary.

Nerdy is giving your avatar attributes from your real-self.
Dorky is giving your real-self attributes from your avatar.