Monday, December 10, 2007

On Transient Appeal

Maybe you've already heard of "HDR" -- high dynamic range -- photography. As the name suggests, the idea is to capture an image with a very large difference between the darkest dark and brightest bright, rather than flattening dark areas to black or blowing light areas out to white.  In theory, a true HDR system would include a specialized HDR camera, an image format with more dynamic range than normal, and a display device with extraordinary contrast ratio and color bit depth.

All three of those are very complicated and only really understood by imaging professionals who spend most of their time trying to explain it all to people who make cameras, image formats, and display devices.

Fortunately, you can also just apply a couple photoshop filters to a regular digital photograph and simulate the "look" of HDR by flattening the tonal curve of the image into the median range. If you go to and search for "HDR", you'll get thousands of photos where people have done this.

Here's an example I made:

HDR image comparison

Generally I think the HDR version looks like garbage, but the thing is: most people prefer it. It reads as clearer, more colorful, better. As the photographer, I find that really irritating because it's completely disconnected from what I saw, and because I can see all these little artifacts of the photoshop filter like the soft halo around the building. Anybody can apply a photoshop filter to any old photo.

The point of this post, however, isn't about photography. It's about cookies.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Applied Shinto: Musubi and Kannagara

(For my introduction on why exactly I'm using Shinto philosophy and terminology, click here for the preceding post. I may expound on my almost certainly poor interpretation of Shinto philosophy, but for now let me define some useful terms from it.)

As the basis for further essays I'll be writing, I first want to define two terms that serve as the foundation:

I believe there is a fundamental quantity that can be used to describe and link broad aspects of human progress. Perhaps the closest term for this quantity might be made by stripping away the authoritarian overtone from the word "order" -- using it more as the opposite of "entropy" than that of "lawlessness". But more than that, this quantity is constructiveness, intelligence, elegance, goodness, beauty, and complexity all rolled up together.


I've been looking for a single word to describe this broad concept because I think the preceding English words are specific cases of a single thing. All of them have to do with what I think of as progress: of things proceeding in the right and proper way, of optimizing the use of what is available for the greatest good. I think it's useful to define a word for this because it seems like there are a million arguments about a million topics -- politics, morality, business, design, etc. etc. -- that I am finding are best approached with the same basis for evaluating what is productive and counterproductive, right and wrong, a benefit or a hindrance.

Fortunately I think there's one good word for this concept: musubi.

I have read musubi defined as "the spirit of creativity", but there is a lot more behind the word in Shinto philosophy, with refinements and extensions of the concept that describe how it functions in the world. In its various forms and applications, it seems a very good fit for this concept, this quantity, that I want to discuss. So grasping my new word, I will begin:

I believe that musubi applied to human endeavors defines the magnitude and direction of the arrow of human progress. Great men and women bring more musubi to the world than others. Successful businesses create it and increase their wealth. A well-designed machine is musubi made physical. Great artists clearly express the spirit of musubi in their work. Musubi makes the world go 'round -- better living through musubi -- Vorsprung durch Musubi the Germans might say.

Applied Shinto: An Introduction

Part of the reason I started this webpage was to give me an outlet for some essays centered around a certain concept that I've become fairly obsessed with. I've been collecting notes for these essays, expanding outward from this central concept, but I've been increasingly hindered by one problem: I couldn't think of a word for it.

This has irritated me to no end for two reasons.  First, that the English language, which I'm kind of a fan of, hasn't seen fit to develop a word for this concept that I believe to be very important; and second, that it's damn hard to write about something you don't have a word for. So to solve the latter problem, I decided to pick a more-or-less arbitrary word, "umami", for a while simply because it was a word in Japanese for a concept (a fifth taste sensation) that apparently the English language also hasn't seen fit to develop a single word for. I even started to justify the choice by likening the "meaty" umami flavor to the "meatiness" of topic of my essays, but that just made me more frustrated not less.

Otorii at Itskushima Shrine

I think I've found my word however, and in discovering it I learned that I (unsurprisingly) am not the first person to become obsessed with this concept. I was on the right track though because the word is at least in Japanese, and the concept seems to underlie much of Japan's native religion, Shinto.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Perception, Common Sense, and Audiophiles

Recently I've seen a resurgence of the "audiophile product makers are snake-oil dealers" meme. I'm not going to defend any particular make of audiophile product (I don't know anything about Pear Cable, which has been getting the attention recently) but I do feel compelled to defend audiophile stuff from out-of-hand dismissal, because I hate the false reasoning used by a lot of the critics and because I know from a couple years working at an audiophile store that some of the stuff is honestly pretty amazing.

Samurai Jack fights blind

I think the reason this particular topic draws the kind of debate it does has a lot to do with the nature of our sense of hearing.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Communicating with Style

I've developed a preoccupation with grammar and literary style recently, which is a little weird for an engineer. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading things like Orwell's Politics and the English Language, I've been trying my hand at writing a bit, and I've nurtured a deep revulsion of business-world statements like
"we will create go-forward action items offline"

that replace direct statements like
"we will assign responsibilities after the meeting".

which I suppose people find uncomfortably committal.

The Elements table of contents

Sensing a need, a friend recommended I read Strunk & White's Elements of Style, which is 52 pages of awesome. With headings like "Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form" and "Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end", it's so succinct that you honestly can improve your writing just by reading the table of contents. The book is filled with ways of choosing words, phrasings, and structures of sentences and paragraphs that inherently keep a reader interested and convey your meaning. It isn't just about writing correctly; it's about writing to most economically get what's in your head into somebody else's.

Partway through I realized that I was reading the programmer's guide for the English language; it ought to have a woodcut of an obscure mammal on the front.

Following the rules in Elements of Style takes work, but the book implicitly makes the argument that if you're not following these rules, you're wasting your reader's time and trying his patience. That is, if you don't decode your ideas into writing that is easily parsed, the reader has to decode it and that extra effort is what drives him away. Your goal as a writer should be to convey your intent as economically and elegantly as possible. This realization tickled something familiar in my brain.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Smallness of Talk

I've been lucky enough the last few years to have spent quite a bit of time traveling for business, within the US, in Asia, and in Europe. No matter the vast cultural chasms between these places though, I've noticed there's a sort of common rhythm to the business visit: Introductions are made and sympathy given for the frustrations of travel, Business Topics are discussed, and the day is closed with common goals, good intentions, and plans of action.

Then there's dinner.

Visiting US companies, I always find the dinner part pretty unpleasant. I spend much of the day dreading the evening when I'll have to pretend to understand football references and find gay jokes amusing, and know I'll generally come across as unsociable by trying to steer the conversation back to engineering where I feel less awkward. But as I started traveling overseas a lot, I noticed that I enjoyed dinner. Conversation, conducted in the simplified English spoken by basically everybody in the world anymore, was entertaining and engaging.

I began to realize that this had everything to do with the topics that we fell into discussing. When (at least) one side of a conversation is forced to use a second or third language (and the other side must throttle their pace and vocabulary to match), it's nearly impossible to talk about subtleties and nuance. No, the simplest topics are the big ones, the ones requiring the words everybody knows: love, life, belief, art, food. And this is reinforced by just not having much of the assumed commonality one has with one's own countrymen; they don't watch football in mainland China.


Recently I've been reading a bit about Versaille during the reign of the Sun King, the political island created by Louis to isolate and impoverish the nobles of France, and thus solidify his power over them. Life at Versaille was an endless dance of ceremony, intrigue, and parties, and the the Sun King set the tempo. Rapid shifts in extravagant fashions ensured that nobles spent all their money on frivolities, and the swirling succession of social events ensured that enemies were kept close, and infighting was maximized. It was a shared, contained, small little world made of nothing but subtlety and nuance, that left no time or resources to engage in substance, unless you were the Sun King.

Similarly, dinners between Americans (and I would assume other countrymen) seem to be dominated by the guy who has mastered the subtleties of the standard small talk between Americans. Once you're outside Versaille and talking to people of the world, conversation becomes more substantial and less dominated by anybody.

I suck at the dinners with Americans, but I had some of my deepest conversations with nearly complete strangers in Taiwan. I found that really odd at the time.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Math Can Set Art Free

In case you needed any further proof that governments in general will, in a vacuum of public opinion, side with corporate interests at the expense of the public good... consider copyright terms.

US Constitution, Patents

Rufus Pollack has written an excellent paper performing a rigorous mathematical cost analysis of copyright terms, seeking to find the optimum term to maximize the amount of welfare derived from creative work, this of course being the correct reason to have copyright (and patent) law in the first place, as expressed in the US Constitution:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries...

This expresses well the balance between too short a term of exclusive right for creators -- decreasing incentive to create, and thus decreasing welfare through that lost work -- and too long a term -- decreasing welfare through work rendered unavailable or artificially costly, not to mention the loss of contribution of the public domain to the creation of new works.

Pollack encodes all of these dynamics (and many more) in his mathematical model and comes to two conclusions. First, as the costs of production and reproduction decrease, the optimal copyright term decreases. This makes complete sense to me, but hey, it's nice to have math on your side. If you want theorize a bit, you can certainly see how this artificial imbalance attempts to right itself in the rampant online copyright violation we see today with vastly decreased cost of distribution. At the least, this suggests that any copyright laws made should err on the side of being too short.

Second, taking some input values for rate of cultural decay and the discount rate of works from the real world, he concludes that the optimal term of copyright today is about 14 years. Making the most conservative of assumptions, the maximum is about 52 years (and the minimum is around 3 years given liberal assumptions). Interestly, the original term of copyright in the US in 1790 was ... 14 years. Perhaps a bit aggressive given the technology of the day, but at least they were planning ahead! Of course copyright terms today are typically lifetime + 50-70 years. Most of the works created in the 20th century remain out of the public domain. How did this happen?

Copyright law falls into a realm of policy (much like, say, space-bourne weaponization policy) that has very little immediate effect on a given citizen, but great effect on the business of certain corporations. This gives government free rein to push through copyright extensions that bring in campaign dollars and cost virtually nothing in public disapproval -- if government is willing to ignore the negative impact to the public welfare at large.

Keeping Up Appearances

I was reminded this morning how much I like the word "misdemeanor". It's now used as a sort of a legal-technical term that I doubt many people associate with the base word "demeanor" any longer; I hear most people speaking it incorrectly as MIS-de-mea-nor, rather than mis-de-MEA-nor.

But it's such a good descriptive word for "a lesser offense" in a now-anachronistic kind of way. It's what a 19th century gentleman might use to describe the actions of one who had imbibed a bit too much port at the men's club and had danced a most inappropriate jig: "something of a mis-demeanor, I must say, sir!"

Bob Allen

The item that reminded me of the word this morning was the news that Florida representative Bob Allen was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution for offering an undercover cop $20 for a blow job, which seems to me the very essense of a misdemeanor.... I say, sir, in a public restroom no less? A most unseemly mis-demeanor indeed!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An Ideal Vice

For my money, your best vices have three attributes:
  • Little or no wholesome benefit
  • An element of selfish indulgence (bonus points for substance delivery)
  • A pleasant, charming ritual (bonus points for required accessories)

You've got your drink. Sure maybe red wine has marginal health benefits, but really what we have is the slow enjoyment of wonderful, alcohol-infused liquids from glasses of unusual shape.

You've got your gambling. Not my personal bag, but I've got to admit that it hits the high points, although any game without a skilled human running it doesn't count. Scores extra for being in close proximity to most other vices.

Churchill, Bogart, Jameson, and Dietrich

And you've got your smoking. Perhaps the best of rituals, it gives you something to do with your hands, you can (in theory) do it anywhere, and -- let's be honest -- it's the ultimate coolness multiplier. It makes Humphrey Bogart more mysterious, Winston Churchill more cunning, Marlene Dietrich more sultry, and J. Jonah Jameson more brash.

If only it weren't for the problems. There's the offensive smell and yellowing smoke. Irritating, but from what I can tell from movies, more or less 98% of human beings did it anyway in the first half of the 20th century ... before we started figuring out that it also kills you in painful and humiliating ways.

So with that in mind, I can't understand why the makers of the "electronic" cigarette, a cigarette-shaped device that delivers nicotine in vaprous form without any of the downsides, have decided to market it as a tool to help smokers quit.

I think I may finally take up smoking, if they can figure out how to give the device a quick charge from the flick of a "lighter".

Once you have such a device, why stop at simple nicotine delivery? This should be the Nespresso of inhalants, with individual cartridges of all sorts of choices and combinations of taste, smell, and over-the-counter substance. The first smoke of the day has the flavor of bitter espresso with a powerful kick of caffeine. The "eastern blend" smells faintly of aromatic herbs and delivers a mellow ginseng boost.

You notice a woman at the end of the bar, gazing coyly at you through a thin haze of alluringly scented mist that she lazily blows from the corner of her mouth. Your heart begins to pound and your breath quickens; you feel an athsma attack coming on -- quick, have a FLOVENT(TM) Smoke (now in breath-improving formula)!

Update: Crown 7 seems to now offer cigar, cigarette, and pipe form factor devices to the US market, but still only nicotine!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On War

It's not the most entertaining place to start a blog, but I have to start somewhere:

Many people, by now, are pretty familiar with the (recently-unheeded) Powell doctrine of overwhelming force. But looking back to earlier military theory on which this doctrine is based, I discovered that General Carl Von Clausewitz' "Vom Kriege" (On War), published in 1873 is available in its entirety online.

It's incredibly meticulous and well-informed, arising from the General's experience during the Napoleonic Wars, and probably not worth reading in its entirety unless you're a student of military theory. I did, however, find the wide-ranging first chapter on the "nature of war" to be incredibly interesting. In it, the author lays out the fundamental algebra of war -- clashes of diverse combinations of means, motivations and goals that have played out in conflicts in the 20th, and now the 21st century.

But the bit that struck me most was part of his dismissal of three idealized conditions that would lead to a perfect, logical war. Addressing one of these, he says:
"[War] does not consist of a single instantaneous blow."

In theory, the entirety of this kind of war would be concentrated into the preparation for the single decisive battle to be fought, with neither side launching the attack until victory could be ensured (defined by Clausewitz as the forced submittal of the enemy to the will of the attacker). This kind of war was impossible in the 19th century, but was made reality by the nuclear-driven Cold War of the 20th.

But how then is this kind of war won? Clausewitz algebra dictates that war can only be won (in the world before ICBMs) with the real application of force (not just its threat), but also that war can only be prosecuted when the political objectives to be achieved are sufficiently great enough to justify the expenditure of resources, and that both are sufficiently supported by political will (the realpolitik term that we'd now call "popular support"). In the case of the Cold War, where the entirety of war was concentrated into the preparation, means and will were combined into a single term: money. Economics "won" the Cold War, when the Soviet Union gave way beneath the burden of military spending and low productivity. Because the means and will of our enemy were the very things we sought to defeat, physical war was averted by the USSR's inability to fight it.

This to me represents an extreme case of another way to look at war, increasingly relevant in the modern world: economic war. Clausewitz calculates strength by "the sum of available means and the strength of the will". Increasingly in the technologicaly-driven US military, the means are economic, not human, and so we can (if we're sufficiently cynical) begin making direct monetary cost-benefit analyses of potential wars, assuming we have perfect understanding of the true cost of a given war. If anything has been responsible for the steady decline in the scope of war since WW2 (and I believe it has been a steady decline), it has been that the cost-benefit analysis has been increasingly unfavorable as globalization has taken hold. If the US were to attack China today, even if such a war were known to be "easy", the advantage to be gained would be far outweighed by the damage to Chinese industry that increasingly supports our own economy.

Now the battles to be fought between developed nations are bloodless and conducted between dispassionate corporations, where win-win outcomes are as viable as victory and defeat. If the world is ever to achieve an enduring peace, it may be through the marketplace's inherent favor of efficient and predictable vectors toward progress.