The opposite of Pinterest Fail: The Alinea Project

One of the more interesting online communities that has sprung up in recent years is Pinterest. It serves as a kind of Internet inspiration board: people clip pictures of projects that interest or inspire them, and post them as a sort of pin board that can be shared. I recently found several boards on ships in a bottle which are serving to inspire me to my first such project. One of the most popular topics is food: people pin recipes and pictures to serve as ideas for their creative cooking endeavors.

As might be imagined, not everyone who is inspired succeeds in duplicating the source of their inspirations. Some people lack the experience or expertise to turn out the creations they imagine. These are somewhat comically chronicled on a number of blogs, such as the Pinterest Fail blog, and the Epic Pinterest Fail blog. For instance, this isn’t one of mine, but it easily could be: I’m a miserable baker.

Cupcake Fail

But today, I received a Kickstarter prize in my mail which is illustration of the diametric opposite of the Pinterest Fail: Allen Hembergers Alinea Project. I’d describe the project, but Allen is much better at describing the project himself:

I work with a lot of talented people, but Allen is off the chain amazing. I only became aware of his project a couple of years ago, and didn’t really even know who he was at work (our circles/projects don’t overlap) but I became amazed at his passion, his writing and his glorious photography. The problem with food is that at its best, it is a very transitory art form. But through his photography and writing, Allen could allow you to experience at least a part of what cooking at this level was like, not only as a consumer, but as a creator. I found that incredibly appealing. His photography immortalizes dishes, and are done with such amazing technique, such amazing lighting…

One of Allen's many amazing photographs

It was with great pleasure that I backed Allen’s Kickstarter Project to turn all of his photographs and writings into a book. Along with 510 other backers, I ponied up my $75 to get a copy, and it arrived in my mailbox today.

It… is… amazing.

It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful books on food that I have ever seen. I’ve only had a few minutes to briefly skim it, but I’m sure that over the Christmas holiday, I’ll be reading it from start to finish. The quality of the binding and the color reproduction is incredible, a level of quality nobody has any right to expect, but which is entirely keeping with Allen’s obsessive compulsion to do everything at the highest level.

I’m in awe.

It almost seems unfair that one individual could be as good at as many things as Allen is. And yet, he’s obviously also very humble, very self-critical and is struggling every step of the way. Even if you do not aspire to become a great chef, I think there are lessons to be had and inspiration to be taken from his creative march.

If you weren’t in on the KickStarter, I don’t know how you’d get a copy, but you are missing out if you don’t have one. Incredible.

Addendum: It looks like you can order a copy of his book from his website.

Book Review: Land of LISP, by Conrad Barski

I learned to program as a teenager back in the 1980s, starting as most of a generation of future computer professionals did. I had an Atari 400 at home, and learned to program using the most popular language of the day: BASIC. There were lots of magazines like COMPUTE! and Creative Computing that included program listings for simple games that you could type in and experiment. The interaction was very hands on and immediate.

Sometimes I feel like we’ve lost this kind of “hobbyist programming”. Because programming can be lucrative, we often concentrate on the saleability of our skills, rather than the fun of them. And while the computers are more powerful, they also are more complicated. Sometimes it feels like we’ve lost ground: that to actually be a hobbyist requires that you understand too much, and work too hard.

That’s a weird way to introduce a book review, but it’s that back story that compelled me to buy Conrad Barski’s Land of Lisp. The book is subtitled Learn to Program in LISP, One Game at a Time!, and it’s delightful. The book is chock-full of comics and cartoons, humorously illustrated and fun. But beneath the fun exterior, Barski is an avid LISP enthusiast with a mission: to convince you that using LISP will change the way you program and even the way you think about programming.

I’ve heard this kind of fanatical enthusiasm before. It’s not hard to find evangelists for nearly every programming language, but in my experience, most of the more rare or esoteric languages simply don’t seem to be able to convince you to go through the hassle of learning them. For instance, I found that none of the “real world” examples of Haskell programs in Real World Haskell were the kind of programs that I would write, or were programs that I already knew how to write in other languages, where Haskell’s power was simply not evident. We probably know how to write FORTRAN programs in nearly any language you like.

But I think that Land of Lisp succeeds where other books of this sort fail. It serves as an introductory tutorial to the Common LISP language by creating a series of retro-sounding games like the text adventure game “Wizard’s Adventure” and a web based game called “Dice of Doom”. But these games are actually not just warmed over rehashes of the kind of games that we experimented with 30 years ago (and grew bored of 29 years ago): they demonstrate interesting and powerful techniques that pull them significantly above those primitive games. You’ll learn about macros and higher-order programming. You’ll make a simple webserver. You’ll learn about domain-specific languages, and how they can be used to generate and parse XML and SVG.

In short, you’ll do some of the things that programmers of this decade want to do.

I find the book to be humorous and fun, but it doesn’t pander or treat you like an idiot. While it isn’t as strong academically as The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (which is also excellent, read it!) it is a lot more fun, and at least touches on many of the same topics. I am not a huge fan of Common LISP (I prefer Scheme, which I find to be easier to understand), but Common LISP is a reasonable language, and does have good implementations for a wide variety of platforms. Much of what you learn about Common LISP can be transferred to other LISP variants like Scheme or Clojure.

But really what I like about this book is just the sense of fun that it brings back to programming. Programming after all should be fun. The examples are whimsical but not trivial, and can teach you interesting things about programming.

At the risk of scaring you off, I’ll provide the following link to their music video, which gives you a hint of what you are getting yourself into if you buy this book:

I’d rate this book 4/5. Worth having on your shelf!

Land of LISP, by Conrad Barski

Addendum: Reader “Angry Bob” has suggested that the language itself should be spelled not as an acronym, but as a word, “Lisp”. It certainly seems rather common to do so, but is it wrong to spell it all in caps? LISP actually is derived from LISt Processor (or alternatively Lots of Insufferable Superfluous Parentheses), just as FORTRAN is derived from FORmula TRANslator, so capitalizing it does seem reasonable to me. Wikipedia lists both. I suppose I should bow to convention and use the more conventional spelling “Lisp”, if for no other reason that Guy Steele’s Common Lisp the Language (available at the link in HTML and PDF format, a useful reference) spells it that way. Or maybe I’ll just continue my backward ways…

Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park’s code-breaking computers

As long time readers of my blog might remember, I’ve been fascinated by old cryptographic machines. I spent quite a bit of time tinkering around with them back when I was working on Simon Singh’s cipher challenge in his book. In particular, I spent a considerable amount of time reading up on the German Enigma machine, and eventually managed to break Stage 8 of that challenge using an Enigma machine simulator that I coded up. I also have a fair number of books on Enigma.

For all that, I didn’t actually know much about the other great code breaking effort at Bletchley Park: the break of the German “Tunny” code using Colossus, an even more impressive machine than the “Bombe” which allowed the breaking of Enigma. My lovely wife scanned my Amazon wishlist at Christmas, and picked up this book for me for my Kindle.

Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park’s code-breaking computers

If your tastes in reading are sufficiently refined to the point where reading about sixty year old code machines is interesting, I think you’ll enjoy the book. It isn’t too technical/nuts-n-bolts, but it does give a good basic idea of how the Tunny operated, and how the British developed an advanced code-breaking bureau that saved thousands of British lives and allowed the preservation of important supply lines in the face of German U-boats. If you are more interested in the history, you might do well to also pick up a copy of Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park, but Colossus includes more technical details on the Tunny.

After the war, the British destroyed Colossus, and most of the records of its function were lost or classified. But in 2000, the British released the “General Report on Tunny with Emphasis on Statistical Methods” which was written in 1945, and details much of the techniques they used to attack the Tunny. It’s online at and also makes for some interesting (and free!) reading.

Teaching English, Ebooks, and the Public Domain

Forgive this slightly meandering diatribe, there are a few ideas that have been kicking around in my head, and today is the day I decided to try to give them form here on my blog. I’ve been thinking about three interwoven topics: the rather odd way we teach people “English” in high school, the oncoming electronic book revolution, and the public domain.

On the drive in to work, I was thinking what an odd subject “English” actually is. It is actually an amalgum of two separate disciplines which are only vaguely related. The first is mastery (or at least competence) in the basic mechanics of the English language: mastery of spelling, increasing your vocabulary, and constructing meaningful and precise sentences. The second is usually reading, analysis and criticism of some works which are viewed as “good” by some, well, teachers of the English language. For some reason, these works seem to be almost exclusively works of fiction or poetry, and are usually of considerable diversity. They also seem to have largely written by people who are now dead, people who lived not just before the birth of modern high school students, but often before the birth of their grandparents.

Leaving that for the moment, I recently was gifted an iPad by my lovely wife. I’ve discovered (somewhat to my amazement) that one of its primary uses for me has been as an ebook reader. I’ve been rather skeptical of the ebook reading experience, but without really making an effort, I’ve found that I have read five entire books on my iPad, and generally had a very positive experience. I’ve begun to actually buy books online. Yes, you don’t actually have the physical artifact anymore, but Amazon will nicely keep track of the books you have bought, and you can redownload them to your device (or new devices) whenever you please, so in some sense they are better than the physical artifact. They are also in general signficantly cheaper: the $9.99 pricepoint is gaining some traction in the market.

I’ve also found the iPad to be a convenient repository for the myriad of technical PDF files that I used to have to print to read. Suddenly, bankers’ boxes full of papers are obsolete: I’m just downloading them to my iPad and tossing them into the shredder. The paperless office might still be a myth, but the source of much of the clutter in my office is slowly evaporating. It’s a minor revolution for me and my reading habits.

And now, the public domain. As long time readers of this blog can assert, I’m a big fan of Project Gutenberg and other efforts to make books and materials which are in the public domain widely available. But even I was forced to admit that I didn’t read a lot of the freely available classics of literature that are available because reading on your computer just isn’t that pleasant. But I find reading on the iPad to be pretty pleasant, so I’m finding that I don’t have any excuse anymore. Many, many classics are available for free and I actually enjoy reading them using the iPad. The net result of this is that I’m reading more, and it is not like I didn’t read a lot before.

Okay, back to teaching English.

One of the reasons that I suspect that high school English curricula contain so many “old books” is that these old books are now in the public domain, and are therefore cheaper to buy. But in electronic format, these books aren’t just cheap, they are for all practical purposes free. I was scanning a few suggested reading lists for high school students such as this one. The page thoughtfully says that:

Students may find these titles at libraries and bookstores.

But somewhat tragically, the page doesn’t even acknowledge that online editions could exist. I conservatively estimate that at least half and likely three quarters of these books are available in electronic formats for free. Imagine what we could do for the literacy of young people if we made sure that all these titles were available to them.

And of course we can go further. Using the Kindle reader on the iPad, you can highlight and annotate your book, but you can also share your highlighting and see parts which are commonly highlighted. Imagine an ecosphere where we could archive the commentary of these classic works, and make them similarly available to all readers.

In my analysis thusfar, I’ve been unfairly ignoring the cost of the reader. After all, my iPad wasn’t cheap even by my standards, and putting one in the hands of high school students seems like a huge expense. To that, I would merely say that other good reader options are emerging at much more competitive price points, and it is likely to only get better over time. Currently the cheapest Kindle you can buy (and which I ordered this morning) is a mere $139, which still sounds like a lot when you compare it to a single paperback, but when you compare it to 20 cheap paperbacks, it’s about even, and when you compare it to 200 paperbacks, it’s pretty obviously a heck of a bargain. It’s also a lot smaller and lighter than carrying even a single book, you can adjust font sizes so even my presbyopic eyes can read comfortably, and you can even do a bit of web browsing and check your twitter and facebook feeds.

I read arguments that we are becoming an increasingly illiterate society. Too much TV, too many video games, too much consumption, not enough reflection. But I see glimmers of hope. The computer networks which bury us in spam also allow us to communicate as never before. The devices which seduce with cheap thrills can also be used to educate and inform.

I don’t think these devices are a panacea. Putting them in the hands of students is no guarantee of improved results, but I think they represent an interesting new opportunity. And even at age forty-six, I think they will reduce the cost of enhancing my mind by bringing some classic literature onto my virtual shelf, without cluttering my physical shelf.

Okay, that’s off my chest. I’m off to download Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.

Build Your Own Z80 Computer

Old timers may remember Byte magazine, and Steve Ciarcia’s column therein. Steve went on to publish Circuit Cellar magazine, an electronics magazine which is more or less dedicated to embedded computer systems. Byte books published a book of his called “Build Your Own Z80 Computer”, which now can be downloaded in its entirety with Steve’s Permission from scribd or Google Books.

Why would anyone want this book? After all, the Z80 is pretty primitive compared to even microcontroller chips like the Atmel ATMega series or PICs. For me, it’s a return to my computing roots; a chance to do something that I couldn’t do back then. Z80 parts are still available and inexpensive, and you can still learn a lot about computers by tacking one of these things together.

Build Your Own Z80 Computer.

Book Review: New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley

I love Sherlock Holmes. I think that Conan Doyle’s portrayal of London’s most famous fictional detective are some of the most fun and yet also most artful works of detective fiction ever written. The only pity is that there aren’t more of them.

For fun, I picked up a copy of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley. I’ve been reading them over the past few days, and I’m sad to reveal that the absolute best of them pale in comparison to the worst of the originals by Conan Doyle. You’ll find all sorts of stories which are pale imitations of stories conveyed with greater impact by Doyle, stories which detail Holmes interacting with famous characters like H.G. Wells (in a plot line which more properly belongs to the world of science fiction), and stories in which Holmes finds radium in an old funeral barrow. Unlike the artful work of Conan Doyle, the plot lines are either obvious or pulled out of the aether as if by magic, and none are satifying.

A complete waste of time. I hardly ever sell books, but this one is going to Goodwill.

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Baseball Hacks

Sometimes you find a book that seems uniquely written for your interests: such is Baseball Hacks, the latest O’Reilly book in their illustrious “Hacks” series. It is basically a manual on how to use computers to fuel your obsession for baseball statistics, and includes a wide vareity of cool things you can do with a computer, access to the internet, and open source tools like MySQL and perl. I’ll say more when I’ve had a chance to work through some of the examples.

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Parasites on the Brain

Just in case you didn’t have enough to worry about on this fine Thursday, check out this interesting article:

Damn Interesting » Parasites on the Brain

Toxoplasma gondii may be the most prevalent human parasite. As many as 50% of humans worldwide, and up to 80% in urban areas, have been infected with it at some time in their lives. An estimated 60 million people in the US have active cases at any given time. It’s a single celled parasite whose favored host is cats. However it can infect and live in a host of other creatures including rats and humans. Most infected people, and most infected rats, show no particular signs of illness when infected. They continue on with their daily life and work completely unaware they’ve been parasitized. But they may not be as unaffected as they seem.

You could also pick up the book  Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer for more fun parasite information.  It’s part of my bookshelf that justifies my increasing paranoia about squishy things in biology.

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What is so damned fascinating about The DaVinci Code?

I just finished listening to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code and I can’t help but shake my head and wonder:

Why the hell is this book so damned popular?

Dan Brown is a dreadful writer.   Not just mediocre.  But bad.  Really bad.   I mean really, let’s open with an evil albino?  Why not just have a midget and a one armed man as villains?  Dear Lord.

And the code stuff?  They are riddles, not codes.

And the ending.  Dreadful.   Truly dreadful.

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Book Review: Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883: Books: Simon Winchester

For quite some time, I’ve been meaning to read Simon Winchester’s book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, but haven’t had the time. Now that I finally got a CD player instlled in my Expedition though, I decided to purchase it as an audiobook, and have been enjoying it during the hour or more I spend in the car each day.

It’s a terrific book, of far reaching scope and depth. Someone with a short attention spam might call it meandering, but I find it to be an interesting look into the historical, scientific and political climate surrounding the eruption of 1883. Sidelines include a brief history of and introduction to the science of plate tectonics, a history of the Dutch and British colonization of the East Indies, and the role that the disaster at Krakatoa may have played in the rise of Islamic unrest in the region. If you are looking for a cheap thrill, pick a shorter book, but this one seems to be like a satisfying meal to me: nourishing the reader listener with knowledge and insight that goes rather deeper than just “volcano go boom!”

Oh, and Winchester narrates his book, he’s got a very nice British accent which is pleasant to listen to. I suspect I’ll be picking up several more of his books.

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Thought of the Day

I’m currently reading ::amazon(“0670033847”, “The Singularity Is Near”):: by Ray Kurzweil, and it’s kind of an over-the-top utopian view about the future. His basic hypothesis is fairly radical: that the accelerating innovation in the world will result in a vast leap in human evolution in the 21st century.

I don’t know that I buy the hypothesis, but I’ll address that more in a later post. Today’s idea for the day was on depreciation. Much of our current economy is tied up in technologies which will be realistically only worth half as much in as little as 14-18 months (namely, computer power). No other capital investment depreciates this quickly, and yet the overall industry is the very model of growth. This is because unlike the old historical economic view, computers aren’t capital assets, they are resources: exploitable resources whose price is racing to the bottom, and who is carrying many other industries (biomedical, communications, and manufacturing) straight to the bottom with them. This “deflation” that we fear in (say) the price of our homes is actually driving innovation and economic expansion.

I just hadn’t thought of it that way before.

Théorie de la spéculation

I’m currently reading Poundstone’s book Fortune’s Formula, and am up the the part which discusses the French mathematician Bachelier, and his thesis that the prices of stocks in the market follow a random walk. His thesis was published in 1900, and slept for quite some time until resurrected after his death in 1946. A bit of googling revealed that you can get his thesis here, in French. NUMDAM is apparently a project to provide digital versions of many old mathematics papers published in French journals. Cool.

Now, I’ll have to dust off my high school French.

Extra Stuff: Gambling Ramblings

I picked up a new book on my trip to Reno: Extra Stuff: Gambling Ramblings by Peter Griffin. Griffin is the author of one of my favorite books in my collection of books on gambling topics: The Theory of Blackjack. This book includes all sorts of interesting tidbits of gambling theory.

The book had a particularly interesting and surprising discussion on the Kelly Criterion: a method of wagering that ensures the quickest maximization of bankroll when you have positive expectation in a game. Basically, if you have a probability p > 0.5, you maximize your bankroll when you wager a fraction of your bankroll equal to 2 * p – 1.

Griffin asked an interesting question: what is the probability at any step that you actually have reached the highest bankroll that you’ve ever seen in that step. When the bets are unit sized, you can derive rather simply (and prove via simulation) that the odds are 2 * p – 1 (interestingly, the same fraction used by the Kelly Criterion) that you have reached your peak earnings. But if you try to graph the resulting curve when you use proportional Kelly style bets, you get a function which is not only fairly complicated, but is in fact discontinuous. This seemed very unintuitive to me, so I wrote a simple program to duplicate the result and plotted it with gnuplot. For each probability p, I simulated one million wagers, and counted the number of times that I reached a new maximum.

Check out the graph:

Odds that you reach your maximum payroll given 2 * p - 1

The discontinuities are real, and the discussion is quite illuminating.

Addendum: The discontinuities occur because of the following. Imagine that you are at an all time high, and then suffer a loss, then a win. When you lose, your bankroll is multiplied by 1-f, and when you win it is multiplied by 1+f. Taken together, you get 1 – f2, which is always less than one, so you know that after all possible sequences of length two that ends in a win (you need to minimally end with a win to reach a peak) you can’t reach a peak.

How about length three? Well, let’s try a loss followed by two wins. You have (1-f) (1+f)2, which you want to be one (or higher). Solving this, we get 1 + f – f2 – f3 = 1, which means f – f2-f3 = 0, or 1 – f – f2 = 0. Solving using the quadratic formula, we find that f yields a value of one precisely at (sqrt (5) – 1)/2, a number commonly referred to as the golden mean or phi. Sure enough, our graph displays a discontinuity there. At just below this value, a loss followed by two wins is insufficient to generate a new high, but at just over this value, it is. Since the probability of these particular sequences varies only infinitesmally, we see a strong discontunity in the chances of reaching a new high when f varies in this neighborhood.

Other possible sequences (two losses followed by three wins, for example) also generate similar but smaller discontinuities.

Very interesting.

At least to me.

But I’m a geek.

Addendum2: For fun, try reading Kelly’s Original Paper and figure out what it says about gambling.

Build Your Own All-Terrain Robot

Today’s book recommendation is Brad Graham and Kathy McGowan’s Build Your Own All-Terrain Robot. Brad and Kathy are the authors of a book which was highly recommended to me, Atomic Zombie’s Bicycle Builder’s Bonanza. I’m not all that interested in building strange bicycles, but robots, hey, that seems like more up my alley.

I’ve got quite a few books that concentrate on making robots which are little more than toys, but I was beginning to think of a bit grander project: a robot that could navigate outside over realistic if not rugged terrain. And this book delivers! It gives detailed descriptions of two different robotics projects, and tells you what you really need to know to get going. You won’t find chapters entitled “how to solder” or “PIC assembly code”, but you will find lots of information on finding the right motors, batteries, how to design and fabricate a welded steel frame, how to get it all working with remote control, and how to mount cameras and even a FRS radio to allow you to see what your ROV is doing.

Great book, highly recommended.