17 October 2014

I don't believe in violence against computers...

Me: Comsol, why won't you simulate?
Comsol: You made a geometry error.
Me: No, I fixed all of those. We already went through the geometry.
Comsol: Well, you didn't assign a material to Domains 4 and 5.
Me: There are *no* Domains 4 and 5.
Comsol: Yes, there are! And you didn't assign them a material. How do you expect me to do my job when you don't assign a material to every domain?
Me: I really don't think there is a Domain 4, or 5. Can you show them to me?
Comsol: No! You should *know* where they are!
Me: I'm sorry, I just don't know where they are, or how you're finding them.
Comsol: Oh, so it's my problem? You don't like my simulations? Maybe I'll freeze up on you and let you take some time to think about how lucky you are to even have me. Most people would be really grateful for such expensive software.
Me: Maybe I'll just run this in FDTD and figure out the photonics. I can come back later for the electrical.
Comsol: I don't want you looking at other modeling software! I have all the physics you should ever need!

29 August 2014

Reading creates a place in time

There's been a surge of decluttering in my life lately. Among other things, I have been sorting through my books and reading lists, crossing off books I've read and making sure they are present on the spreadsheet I've been keeping since middle school to document my bibliophilic triumphs. As I've looked back through the list, the strongest impressions I have are where I was when I was reading some of these books.

I remember reading Quicksilver by the pool on a cruise, although Eliza from System of the World is linked to my bedroom during grad school, where I read every night before bed. Books I wouldn't have remembered that I had read remind me that I read them and learned about social connectedness from Six Degrees primarily on the stationary bike during undergrad while I was dealing with knee injuries. And I have read an awful lot of books in airports, DTW in particular, it seems.

I don't know if this location associative memory is common for other people. Thinking about it, I realize it's quite distinct for me, even beyond my reading. When someone reminds me of a conversation, I frequently ask them where we were when we talked about it and that context triggers the entirety of the discussion. My best theory is that I've moved so many times that knowing where I was is almost as good as knowing when something happened. My next question is whether this will be an equally pronounced effect as I'm starting to switch to e-books.

01 August 2014

Past self to future self

Joe Reddington wrote an interesting post about leaving notes for yourself to better appreciate various aspects of your life. He uses a google calendar email so he gets emails from himself at unexpected times. I have a page in one of my notebooks which I call "Notes to My Future Self."

My list is more practical: "F.S., you do not like the chai at Espresso Royale, you like their croissants." "Important! Do not apply bug spray within 8 hours of shaving legs!" I like the idea of expanding it for more kindness and appreciation, although it becomes less of a record and rather a series of moments rippling forward or backward along the time-stream of life.

25 July 2014

Typing with The Time Machine

My university library has a spectacular collection of rare books and manuscripts, and I have taken some time to visit and read through the original, hand written drafts of H.G. Wells manuscripts of The Time Machine. It was amazing for many reasons, particularly my personal love for sci fi and the chance to have a few thousandths of an inch of mylar between me and the origin of some of the greatest sci fi classics. Hundreds of handwritten pages, drafts with notes and cross outs.

Handwriting is becoming an obscure art. I've found sending handwritten thank you notes has become such a novelty that I almost always get a note (usually email) in response. I like the speed of typing, but I know I process information recorded by hand very differently, it's even been shown to have an impact on memory retention and how well you learn. I'm also curious if handwriting versus typing has changed the authorship process.

It has certainly changed engineering. Drafting writing used to be a required course. Some of my grandfather's notebooks have lettering that is as uniform as a typed font. Now, engineering handwriting is so bad, it's considered a joke. In grad school, I was desperate to avoid a teaching assistantship that would require me to grade anyone's handwritten homework. Now we type everything else, and the biggest concern is selecting a font that is both appropriate and will help reach a page requirement.

Fonts have an interesting history. I like the quick overview from Thinking with Type (pdf). I think they also have a book, but it has more design focus than I'm interested in. I'm particularly intrigued by the convergence between handwriting and fonts. After reading the H.G. Wells manuscripts, I started a project on that convergence. The library has digitized many of the manuscripts in the collection. I downloaded several of those, and used them to find all the letters in the alphabet.

It's very easy to make a font from your own handwriting using tools like MyScriptFont. After collecting all the letters, I loaded them into their pdf template, uploaded it to the website, and got a new font back.

Download the H.G. Wells handwriting font

If I were going to do it over, I would have optimized the letter placement so the tails were aligned and the font looked more like cursive script. It was also a challenge to have a consistent darkness of the letters, and I ended up having to recolor a number of them to make sure the entire font was readable.

If you are interested in the font, you can download the .otf file here.

If you need instructions on how to load an .otf so you can use it on your computer, check out these instructions.

18 July 2014

Drowning yourself

Smoky Mountains
In September, I'm planning to run a half marathon at Smoky Mountains National Park. I've previously trained to run a half. The race was at the end of March, where most of my runs were on a 0.2 mile indoor track or through muddy/icy trails in Illinois. The race was also last March, and in the time since, I've evaluated my desire to ever run again and spent some time fiddling around in physical therapy.

So now, I'm training in the Texas heat. Not as humid as Illinois, but undeniably hotter. It is the first time in my life I have actually dripped sweat. Dripped from every possible edge of my body. Who drips sweat off their elbows? I had no idea that was possible. It reminds me very much of the Hyperbole and a Half tale of trying to run a race in Texas.

It's a situation in which I've found very rapid learning. After all, I get to iterate three to five times a week. Keeping water cool? Goes in a bottle with a cover so that the combined contribution of heat from my hands and the sweltering ambient are the slightest bit reduced. I've borrowed from the ladies of my high school soccer team, using vet wrap to make a head band. I'm just now adding a hat to my running attire, as well. 

More than anything else, I've learned to be appreciative of my eyebrows. I often wondered about the evolutionary function that has kept eyebrows around. Eyelashes clearly protect the eyeball, but eyebrows...? We're not cats, the eyebrows aren't whiskers helping me find my prey or alerting me to the impending annoyance of things touching my face. But running, dripping sweat, and sunscreen melting off...they are suddenly damns protecting my eyes from a blinding salt infused torment. I have undervalued them for far too long.

[1] Image from Aviator31

16 July 2014


I think purgatory must be like driving through an endless parking garage in which every spot is taken and the corners are too tight for you to speed up. And just to really get you, every so often a spot is filled with a smart car parked as far forward as it can go.

[1] Image from: FlickrLickr

11 July 2014

Orphan Black promoting clone sympathizers

This summer, I took some time partially off from grad school to plan experiments and write a couple papers. Most importantly, I got a change of scenery, and won't be on campus for about two months.

In my temporary summer of pseudo-leisure I have decided to come back to writing, but first I started and immediately finished watching the first season of Orphan Black. At the end of season one (yes, spoilers ahead) the set of clones decode a genetic marker and find an IP notice. Suddenly, this cohort of characters that I agonized with for ten episodes were the physical property of a corporation that was also trying to subdue them.

Worrying about the orphans' plight is a nice substitute for the harder questions about the rights actually entitled to sentient and self-aware beings. We have a terrible dilemma when addressing traits that fall along a spectrum. Crows can solve problems, monkeys examine implants on their heads when presented with a mirror, and we have all kinds of dilemmas about what will constitute an artificial intelligence. I don't have any real doubt that eventually we'll deal with human clones, or computer based intelligence. At what point is ownership of such an entity "inhumane"? What if it's a copy of your consciousness? (Check out Mindscan while you're thinking about your alternate selves.)

Interesting decisions have already been made, too. RadioLab produced a show about how there is already a court-case ruling that mutants are not humans to allow cheaper imports on X-men toys. GMO is hotly contested...do we treat glowing fish and bananas that vaccinate kids the same as higher producing crops or German Shepherds that are bred to minimize hip defects? How about in vitro fertilization? Or the use of a third party egg to eliminate mitochondrial disorders that would be passed on to offspring? Where do all these things fall on the spectrum of ethics, technology and wonder?

I read Agent to the Stars a couple years ago and loved the idea of a Hollywood agent becoming responsible for the introduction of an alien race to humanity. As he stated, there have been too many movies with aliens as bad guys, they have a terrible image. I wonder if the same could be done for AI or clones? Is Orphan Black trying to soothe our fears of Storm Troopers, or Oblivion-esque maintanence duplicates? Maybe our shared outrage with Sarah and Cosima when their decoding interface announces their lack of legal standing is an early step towards our future empathy with clones?