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31 May 2008

 

The NYT, Dr. Seuss, and The Fonz

Did you know that Dr. Seuss apparently invented the word nerd in 1950, and that it was popularized by The Fonz on Happy Days in the 1970s? David Brooks revealed that in his New York Times column last week, which is otherwise an entertaining but largely fact-free celebration of the ascendency of the geek.

What Brooks wrote—that nerds and geeks have some cachet of cool now that a lot of them make lots of money—is nothing new, but he did summarize his point in a couple of interesting phrases relating nerdism to U.S. politics, which have caught on around the blogosphere:

George Bush plays an interesting role in the tale of nerd ascent. With his professed disdain for intellectual things, he’s energized and alienated the entire geek cohort...

On the other hand:

Barack Obama has become the Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes.

I have no idea what the second one even means.

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30 May 2008

 

Another fun night

I never thought I'd be so glad to hear fart noises.

Last week, I finished a round of chemotherapy (which started in October) and started a break of a few weeks during which I won't need to be at the Cancer Agency much, and won't be pumping my body full of poisons for a change. But cancer treatment has been fond of serving me curve balls: a post-surgical blockage, antibiotic-induced unconctrolled low blood sugar, a blood clot, and near zombie-like collapse from dehydration.

One week into my break, I landed myself in hospital again very early this morning. It wasn't a car accident or a bar fight or anything—rather, I went to bed at 11:30 last night with a bit of a tummy ache.

Which got worse, and worse, and worse, until I felt like there was a big gurgling gas bubble sitting sideways in my small intestine under my navel. The pain was enough that I didn't sleep at all, and by a little before 3:00 a.m. I had to wake my wife to call the Cancer Agency doctor line and ask what to do. They recommended heading down to Burnaby General Hospital Emergency, and forwarded my treatment history to BGH accordingly.

Here's the yucky part of the explanation, so be warned. I've mentioned before that I have a (hopefully temporary) ileostomy bag from my surgery last summer. That's like a colostomy bag, but connected to a different part of the intestine. In essence, last summer my surgeon snipped my intestines where the small one (the ileum) meets the large one (the colon), just to the right of my bellybutton, so that my colon could heal from the removal of my tumours.

The end of my ileum now pokes out a hole in my belly into the open air. (No, I won't show you any photos, but I will say that it is a reddish-pink little nub.) To catch the poop that would normally flow out the usual way through my colon, I regularly stick on a small, plastic, remora-like ileostomy bag, which I can empty every few hours, and which I change every few days. Most people who don't know it's there would never notice the bag under my shirt during the day, or might think I have some sort of geek gadget on my belt beneath the shirt hem.

The problem as we drove down to the Emergency ward at the ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m. (after waking up my parents and having them come over to keep an eye on the kids) was that my ileostomy bag was empty, which is not normal for me at that hour. I suspected, as I writhed around a bit in the passenger seat and cursed the slow-changing traffic light, that I had another obstruction in my intestine, which was preventing the food I ate yesterday from going anywhere.

As you'd expect, that doesn't feel too great. Fortunately, for once we found the BGH Emergency waiting room completely empty, and only had to wait about 15 minutes before I got a bed. The doctors and nurses gave me a couple of morphine injections, took blood tests and X-rayed my chest and abdomen, and let me lie down to rest.

I was able to get some sleep after the painkiller kicked in, and eventually the emergency physician let me know that there was nothing alarming on the scans (and no obvious large blockage), that my blood tests were within range for someone just off chemotherapy, and that nevertheless my small intestine seemed to be pushing food waste through more slowly than normal.

The treatment? Go home, stay on a soft and fluidy diet, and wait for the natural passage of whatever minor obstruction was causing my nasty gas pains. So we did that, arriving back just before the kids went to school, and I've slept most of the day as the pain and bloating have very, very slowly abated. I've been able to empty out the bag a couple of times, and just in the past half hour or so, my ileostomy has been making what I would normally consider annoying involuntary farting sounds.

Except now, for once, they're a relief. Thanks, intestines, for working once more. And thanks to my wife and family for shepherding me through this, again.

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29 May 2008

 

Trying out HDR photos

Photography has been one of my hobbies since I first borrowed my dad's Pentax SLR in the 1970s. I bought my first Nikon in high school, worked on the school annual and student papers, went to a summer photo camp, and so on.

But I've never ventured into some of the more specialized areas of photography. In particular, I'm interested in macrophotography and HDR (high dynamic range) imaging. Macro (extreme close-up) pictures require specific equipment, such as a dedicated macro lens, close-up lens accessories, lens tubes, bellows, or lens-reversing hardware—so I haven't tried it yet.

HDR, on the other hand, works by simply taking different exposures of the same scene and combining them with tone mapping software such as Photomatix. After trying some varying exposures in Burnaby's Central Park yesterday with my Nikon D50, I downloaded a Photomatix demo demo today and got the following result:

Central Park Leaves HDR Test

My picture doesn't have the bizarro look of some extreme HDR frames, but it does have a colourful, painting-like pop that most regular photos don't, as well as lots of shadow and highlight detail. I like it.

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Hips don't lie

Bike boyTo misquote a recent Head & Shoulders shampoo ad, dudes don't usually talk about their hips, but today I will.

I haven't been very physically active since I got my cancer diagnosis nearly a year and a half ago. Before that, I regularly bicycled to work, about 12 km each way, and when I took rapid transit I'd often walk an extra stop or two past the closest one to get some exercise. Now that I'm back up to fighting weight (having regained the 25 kg—55+ pounds—I lost before and after my surgery last year), I'm making some efforts again in that direction.

But holy cow, am I inflexible. I've never been a yogi master, nor have I ever in my life been able to touch my toes. Still, yesterday when I took my bicycle out (the first time in months) for some errands and a ride through Burnaby's Central Park, I nearly fell over in our driveway, because my minimally-mobile hips almost prevented me from lifting my leg high enough to get on the damn bike.

Things improved some once I got rolling, and some of my stiffness was probably due to my Italian-sandal–induced wipeout a couple of days ago, but I also noticed that I really had to gear down the mountain bike while pedaling up even the slightest hill, and my speed on the flats was far from what it used to be.

I felt great when I got home, despite a bit of soreness, so I plan to ride some more in the next little while, particularly since I'm having a break from chemotherapy for the next few weeks. Some stretching would also probably be in order.

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27 May 2008

 

Shopping out

Apple Store Vancouver 1 at Flickr.comWithout my wife, it's unlikely I would dress well. The evidence is clear from what I looked like before we met. However, I've always liked shopping, and used to enjoy going to the mall with my mom as much as 30 years ago. I just wasn't fond of buying clothes.

That's no longer true, and for the past couple of days I've spent some of my free time refreshing my wardrobe for the summer, with new shirts, sandals, and trousers.

I also got the chance to do a couple of other things. One was to purge out some older stuff in my clothes cupboards. The other was to go downtown and check out the new Apple Store.

Yeah, it is pretty much the same as other Apple Stores I've been to, with much the same selection of products as other Apple resellers in town, just more slickly presented. However, if you're looking for a variety of FireWire external hard disks (rather than USB 2.0 versions), the Apple Store has more types than most.

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26 May 2008

 

Not always buying from China

[Made in China]I've developed a habit recently (which my wife pointed out to me) of checking the labels on clothing and other products to see if I can find anything not made in China. That's especially difficult with men's casual shirts, and shoes of any kind. Even venerable British bootmaker Doc Martens moved its production to China more than five years ago. (My three pairs of Docs are from the '90s, and were assembled in the U.K., while my Blundstone boots are from Tasmania.) Sadly, nearly all of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics goods I've seen for sale are made in China too, not Canada.

There are a few reasons for my label-reading effort. One is that I'm not fond of the People's Republic's internal and external politics, with respect to Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Tibet, Tiananmen Square, the death penalty, Sudanese oil, policy reactions to disease outbreaks, Taiwan, North Korea, and so on. I prefer acting on that economically, rather than with symbolic gestures such as urging Canada to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

Second is a combination of experiences I've had with poorly-made inexpensive Chinese goods, and concern about various quality problems that have posed health hazards—from contaminated pet food to tainted children's toys to poisonous food products coming out of the country.

Finally, I'm giving a small bit of pushback to the economic behemoth of Chinese manufacturing. I'd like to give other countries at least a fighting chance of getting my dollar. So, of some of our recent purchases, our vacuum cleaner was made in Mexico, my newest camera lens is from Thailand, my guitars are from South Korea and Japan and Canada (!), my video camera and other electronics came from Japan and Taiwan, the two pairs of sandals I bought today are from Thailand and Italy, and—following in the bare-calfed footsteps of my doppelgänger Darren Barefoot—my new summer man capris were sewn in Bangladesh. (Of course, the Bangladeshi government is no great shakes either.)

Still, it's tricky to avoid Chinese-made goods altogether. Nor is it necessarily desirable. Try finding a reasonably-priced small appliance or a spendy Apple MacBook or iPod made elsewhere, for instance. (In 1993, I was delighted to find that my Macintosh Centris 660AV had been made in Ireland.) Years ago, my friend Tara tried to avoid buying Chinese-made anything, and it was difficult. That was before the massive expansion of manufacturing and exports there in the past decade or so—now such an attempt would be nearly impossible.

I don't think that Chinese workers deserve jobs any less than anyone else. Victims of the recent Sichuan earthquake deserve as much help as those of the Burmese monsoon or the 2004 tsunami too. But it's also worth at least looking to see where your purchases are made, and maybe considering whether something created in another part of the world might be better worth your money.

Alas, those comfy Italian-made sandals turn out to be extremely slippery on the bottom, and I nearly hurt myself badly this evening when they caused me to slip and fall down the hardwood stairs in our front hall. Just because something is made outside China doesn't make it automatically better either.

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25 May 2008

 

Broccoli and cheese

Broccoli and cheese 1 at Flickr.comMy older daughter is 10 years old, and like many kids, she's a picky eater. She's never liked most fruits and vegetables—not the flavour so much as the texture. She finds bananas actively repulsive, and won't go anywhere near a salad.

However, for some reason she's developed a taste for broccoli, of all things. Last night before bed, she was hungry after a long day at Playland with her friend. She asked for broccoli as a bedtime snack. With her special cheese sauce, which she made herself based on a recipe from her grandmother.

I had some too. It was yummy.

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24 May 2008

 

Apple Store Vancouver is open

I didn't go when the Apple Store Pacific Centre opened today in Vancouver, but John Biehler did, along with a gaggle of other Vancouver webby types. As expected, it was pretty busy:

Apple Store Vancouver by John Biehler

It's nice to have a location here in Vancouver, finally, but since all the mall Apple Stores look pretty much the same...

Apple Store Vancouver entrance by John Biehler

....then if you've been to some of the others (I've been to three of them near Seattle, and one in Hawaii), I don't know how much will be new about this one.

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23 May 2008

 

Kids differ

I was 11 years old when Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered in 1981. Loved it, including the famous melting face scene near the end. I don't think I had seen Alien yet, but I had a photo book of the movie and knew it nearly by heart, including the infamous chest-burster. In short, to me the gross stuff in those movies, and others, was cool, and didn't freak me out too much.

I also liked watching those '70s-era boogie-man shows like In Search Of, and I still recall waking up late at night during a sleepover in the basement at my friend Sean's house to watch a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monster wreak havoc on TV. It scared me, and I liked it.

That doesn't seem to be the case for my daughters, aged 8 and 10. They asked me to tell them when to hide their eyes during scary parts of Raiders on DVD the other day, so neither of them actually saw the melting face, or a few other things. Based on that, we skipped Temple of Doom entirely. Tonight we watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which has even fewer freaky bits than Raiders, but the rapid aging and decomposition of the Donovan character when he drinks from the wrong Holy Grail was also more than they wanted to see. Our youngest hid her eyes, while our oldest didn't, but had trouble getting to sleep.

On the other hand, two and a half years ago our oldest was okay with King Kong, especially after a day or two to process it. But I still don't know whether we should take them to see the new Indiana Jones movie. I'm sure their friend Clive will love it as I did (he's 9, and watches action movies all the time), while after two Indy movies at home our daughters might not even want to go.

Fiction has always been a way for children to face scary things, and learn to live with them. That's what most fairy tales are about. So I don't want to shelter our girls too much. We're not going to force them to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but if after a bit of time they want to go, I'm not sure—should we take them or not?

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21 May 2008

 

Links of interest (2008-05-21):

Chemo day today, so I'm in bed as usual, with Iron Chef America coming up in an hour. Some links:

  • "Asperger's Syndrome has been a part of IT for as long as there's been IT. So why aren't we doing better by the Aspies among us?" (Via Tim Bray.)

  • Finally! Apple Store Vancouver will open Saturday, May 24.

  • Hancock may be the first original blockbuster movie idea in a long time—and it still has Will Smith! Nevertheless, I expect the new Indiana Jones opening on Thursday to be better, although there is blessedly very little original about it.

  • While I've long thought the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project was a neat idea, I've also long had a sinking feeling that the people who put it together didn't really have a plan to make it work, especially once the computers were out in the field. It seems that may be true, according to the project's former director of security architecture (via Fake Steve), who writes, "now the company has half a million laptops in the wild, with no one even pretending to be officially in charge of deployment."

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20 May 2008

 

Wheels within wheels

I used to teach courses about Microsoft Word. Stuff like this (via John Gruber) is what made me stop.

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19 May 2008

 

On the circuit

Crazy Kingsway - 3 at Flickr.comI was driving back from the Vancouver suburb of Maple Ridge with the kids today, and my older daughter was playing Mario Kart DS in the back seat.

It was a strange cognitive experience, because we were barreling down the Mary Hill Bypass with Mario Kart music playing. My younger daughter said she was glad we weren't getting hit by red shells, and I was pleased to be able to resist bumping into other cars or going off wacky jumps.

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17 May 2008

 

It was acceptable in the eighties

Back in 1986, a group of kids from my all-boys' private school (St. George's School in Vancouver) and a couple of affiliated girls' schools (Crofton House and York House) took a Spring Break "art tour" trip to Italy, with whirlwind visits to Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Turin, and so on.

I have photos in an album somewhere, but Anne Pewsey Richards, who was also on the trip, has done much better. She posted a bunch of pictures to Facebook, and gave me permission to repost them at Flickr. If you thought my glasses were big the year before in my geekiest photo, check them out here with the accompanying sunglass clip-ons:

Derek's huge specs 1986

Anne's group shot also includes some prime '80s hair and fashions. (I'm on the far right, squinting—shoulda worn the clip-ons.)

Italy high-school art tour 1986

Finally, you can see that I was a camera nerd, with the Nikon, big zoom lens, and obnoxious camera strap, even then (again, I'm far right—guess I had the contact lenses on there):

High school kids at the Colosseum 1986

I'm sure there was no way at all that local Italians could tell that we were tourists. There are several people in her photos (Anne included—but she noted that she's lived in England since the early '90s) whom I have not seen even once in the intervening 22 years.

I also haven't been back to Europe since this trip.

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16 May 2008

 

Overhead

747 overhead at Flickr.comI've just come from sitting in the yard, reading, for more than an hour, with the kids passing around a volleyball and swinging on the swings. This long Victoria Day holiday weekend, Vancouver is having an early heat-wave blast of summer, with temperatures reaching 30° C here in the suburbs, so we're taking advantage of it. It certainly feels—if only temporarily—like a full summer day, since the sun set around 8 p.m., the same time it will in July.

When the wind is westerly, as it is today, airplanes coming in from the Pacific to Vancouver Airport fly a slow U shape, east across the city, turning south, and then coming in to land flying westward over Richmond to the south. This evening, several massive 747s went almost directly over our house in Burnaby, as they often do, high enough not to be disturbing but low enough that we can read their tail insignia, then watch them bank slightly and make their wide turns over the suburbs further east.

Jumbo jets, like all aircraft, continue to astound me, and it's a pity so many of us spend most of our time complaining when we talk about air travel. Journeys that used to take weeks or months now take hours. They have changed the world, and I get to watch them begin and end in the sky over my house every day.

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15 May 2008

 

Other stuff

Griffin iMate with ADB cableI took in my old broken MacBook power adapter yesterday, and unfortunately Apple requires that the dealer keep it while they wait for the replacement. That means I temporarily have no way to charge my laptop, so I have to ration its time for when I really need it.

So I find myself spending much less time randomly surfing around. Instead, I've been following up my recent finishing of Walter Isaacson's Einstein with James Gleick's Genius, a biography of perhaps the 20th century's second-greatest physicist, Richard Feynman. Plus I finally got my Griffin iMate USB-ADB adapter and hooked up one of my Apple Extended Keyboard IIs, as well as the accompanying Apple Desktop Bus Mouse II.

I'd forgotten that even the old ADB Mouse II, despite its physical mouse ball instead of a modern LED or laser, feels very nice too. The shape of the mouse feels better in my hand than Apple's new Mighty Mouse and most third-party mice, the plastic is solid, and the single-button mouse click is great. While I miss the right-click and scroll ball, I may even keep using the old ADB mouse. I'll certainly keep going with the great old keyboard.

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14 May 2008

 

What sucks about Apple's MagSafe power adapter

It's been nearly a year since anything went wrong with my MacBook laptop, but overall, it hasn't been a paragon of reliability. The battery, motherboard, fan, DVD drive, and hard disk have all (!) needed service. Now there's this:

My MacBook's Magsafe adapter is wearing out

UPDATE: It looks like AppleCare will replace the adapter for me, no charge. I'm taking the old one in to a local Apple dealer today.

Right from when it was announced in 2006, I thought the MagSafe power connector, which pops out if you trip over the cord rather than dragging your laptop to the ground, was a smart idea. But the sharp angles and minimal strain relief of the design also seemed fragile to me, and I appear to have been right. I know several people whose MagSafe adapters have failed exactly as mine is: the cord wears through right next to the computer end of the connector.

Conversely, my wife's round iBook connector continues to work just great, even though it is a year older, and it's rare to hear of those adapters failing in a similar way at all. The new MagSafe design for the MacBook Air seems like it might be sturdier, but I don't think the actual power brick is rated for enough voltage for my bigger MacBook.

The pity is, because Apple has patented the MagSafe design and has not licensed it to other manufacturers, you can't buy yourself a third-party MagSafe-compatible power adapter with a better connector. So whether AppleCare warranty covers it or not, I'll end up with a similar flawed design, which may fail on me again in a year or two.

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13 May 2008

 

Links of interest (2008-05-13):

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12 May 2008

 

What makes a nice airport?

"Situation Terminal" (via Philip Greenspun) laments the generally lousy state of modern airport design. Author Paul Goldberger writes that:

Airports are essentially machines for processing people, airplanes, automobiles, cargo, and luggage—all of which move in different ways, and which need to be connected at certain points and separated by rigid security at others.

The problem, he notes, is that in most current facilities are:

....an efficient layout for airport operations, as long as you don't consider passenger pleasure to be a part of airport operations.

I don't have a lot of experience with airports around the world—I've never been to the new terminals in China and Europe that Goldberger profiles as rare successful airport architecture—but I think Vancouver's YVR does a surprisingly decent job of it.

While many Vancouverites continue to complain about the "Airport Improvement Fee," instituted in the early '90s when the Canadian government leased the facility to the Vancouver Airport Authority, the money from that fee has transformed what was a small, drab, concrete slab during my childhood into a much larger, more interesting, well-lit, and beautiful space.

One thing I do find puzzling at YVR: most of the huge collection of Northwest Coast native art is well displayed, but it's in the international arrivals area. That's the one part of the facility where people are moving as fast as they can to get off their planes, through Customs, and out—where they'll spend little to no time looking at the artwork. There's a lot less of that stuff in the departure areas, which is where passengers are sometimes waiting around for hours, and where they might find some use looking at the art. Weird.

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11 May 2008

 

Mother's Day

TulipsThere are a lot of moms in my life—most importantly my wife, of course, who's the mother of our two daughters. There are also my own mom, my mother-in-law, my aunt, my cousin, many of our friends, and, most recently, my long-time pal and one-time roommate Tara, who had a daughter in February.

I think when your kids are young, they really don't fundamentally understand the concept of sleeping in at all. Pretty much any child past infancy treats sleep as an enemy. It's a measure of still being a kid, like aiming for puddles instead of avoiding them. Mother's Day is probably the prime example.

I remember bringing my mom breakfast way too early on Mother's Day Sundays when I was old enough to cook, in the late '70s. It never occurred to me that she might rather sleep than eat the delicious food that I spent so much time messing up (but not cleaning up) the kitchen over. No. Idea. At. All.

Today, my own kids were already awake at 8:30 when I carefully tiptoed out of the bedroom and closed the door, letting my wife sleep while I went to the bathroom and got ready to start the day. By the time I'd come back upstairs, our bedroom door was open and their mom, with a tired smile, had eaten some eggs prepared by our older daughter, who makes a pretty decent omelette. After some Mother's Day morning greetings from our younger girl, my wife was, blessedly, able to go back to sleep, and the girls went back to playing The Sims.

So, here's a toast to all of you moms who got woken up too early today for a kid-prepared breakfast. I hope it was tasty.

I've persuaded the kids to bring the Mother's Day gift to their grandmother, my mom, closer to lunchtime.

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10 May 2008

 

Volcano and thunderstorm

Via Kottke, here is a gallery of UPI photos of a thunderstorm meeting the volcanic plume from the Chaitén volcano in Chile this week. Check out picture #11:

Thunderstorm and Chaiten volcanic plume, (C) 2008 UPI

Whoa, as Keanu would say. I never knew the Spanish term for thunderstorm before, but it's pretty nifty: tormenta eléctrica.

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09 May 2008

 

Sunshine Coast hotel recommendations?

I bought a new hatSpring weather is coming, and with my new shaved head I'll have to remember to wear a hat and sunscreen—especially because chemotherapy side effects also mean I should avoid prolonged sun exposure.

More positively, my family has been looking at accommodations on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast for a weekend getaway, possibly sometime in June. We're the sort who avoid camping, and much prefer places with restaurants and perhaps a pool. There are a few such places up the coast from here, including Rockwater, Pender Harbour Resort (beware, flashy Flashness), the Sunshine Coast Resort, and the West Coast Wilderness Lodge (not really that much wilderness).

Does anyone have experience and recommendations for fun family places to stay between Gibsons and Egmont for a couple of nights?

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08 May 2008

 

Einstein may have been inevitable, but the Beatles probably weren't

Gladwell and Einstein, men of big hairIn a recent CBC podcast, writer Malcolm Gladwell noted that "those of you who are familiar with my writing will know that this practice of talking about X by discussing Y is my only rhetorical move." His recent excellent article in The New Yorker, about scientists who independently discovered or invented things at the same time (via Angela Gunn), is a prime example.

The article is about 7000 words long. Here is Gladwell's thesis statement:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call "multiples"—turns out to be extremely common.

You don't get to read that until more than 3500 words have passed: if you skip the title of the piece ("In the Air: Who Says Big Ideas Are Rare?"), Gladwell doesn't tell you what his essay is about until it's more than half over. It's nevertheless fascinating, but even (or perhaps especially) if you have read the title, you might be like me. As you read the first half, you may very well keep thinking, "Yeah, Malcolm, so what's your point?"

When the time is right

His main one is that many inventions and scientific discoveries happen because the time is right. Many people are working on certain types of ideas (the mathematics of changing systems, the relationships of fossil organisms after discovering that the earth is very old, the next step of electrical communications after the telegraph), so it's very likely that someone—maybe several someones—will come up with a key new concept based on those ideas (calculus, evolution by natural selection, the telephone).

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's wonderful 2007 biography of Albert Einstein, the first published after the release of many of Einstein's private letters and writings. Einstein was so remarkable that his last name has become a noun, a synonym for genius around the world.

Yet of course he didn't generate his world-changing ideas out of the ether (nor, since he disproved the existence of the ether, out of a vacuum). Einstein's synthesis of the ideas of Planck and Mach and Maxwell and others with the experimental results of Faraday, Curie, Michelson and Morley, and still others would have happened eventually. But it might have taken a few decades, and probably a number of eminent scientists, to reveal that atoms actually existed, that light is a wave-particle duality, that gravity can be thought of as the warping of space-time, and the dozens of other ideas that Einstein figured out largely on his own during feverish bursts of creativity in between 1905 and 1917.

So what is genius?

Gladwell doesn't talk about Einstein at all, but he also doesn't diminish genius in his article. Rather, he reframes it: someone like Einstein (or Newton, or Kelvin) is brilliant enough to make a wide range of discoveries. To get a similar range of insights or inventions, you'd need a brainstorming session, or a committee, or an "invention session" of smart, but not genius-level, people. And they might not come up with genius-level ideas all at once.

In other words, in science and technology, a genius can do the work of a big group of regular people. And so geniuses often contribute to "multiples," but also do more. Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus, but Leibniz didn't come up with anything like Newton's discoveries in optics or gravity.

Gladwell also has a third point, one that helps distinguish science from art. Namely, that a scientific genius and an artistic genius are different things, even though we use the same word:

You can't pool the talents of a dozen Salieris and get Mozart's Requiem. You can’t put together a committee of really talented art students and get Matisse's "La Danse." A work of artistic genius is singular.

Creating and discovering

That makes intuitive sense—there is a difference between creating something and discovering something. Einstein himself was profoundly uncomfortable with quantum theory and wave mechanics, even though he established that field of study. He spent the last half of his life fighting against their probabilistic implications. Yet quantum theory was still there, whether Einstein was involved or not.

Conversely, let's take another example that Gladwell doesn't use. Sure, without the Beatles there would still have been some kind of rock and roll after Elvis, and maybe even psychedelia in the '60s. But there wouldn't have been Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, nor maybe any record quite like it. (I doubt the Rolling Stones would have made Their Satanic Majesties Request, for instance.)

Similarly, the work of Watson, Crick, and Franklin in discovering DNA was part of a feverish mid-century effort throughout biology to determine what genes might be made of. Somebody was going to find the double helix. But nobody made paintings exactly like Picasso, or sang just like Ella. Without them, maybe no one ever would.

We are social creatures, so the twining influences and effects of our creativity can be hard to tease out. That's part of what's so cool about them.

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07 May 2008

 

Rose petals and water drops

Pink & white reflections at Flickr.comEthan Gutmann at Ars Technica writes about the remarkable properties of rose petals when water drops land on them. Not only are rose petals superhydrophobic, like many plant leaves (water drops ball up on the surface), but unlike those leaves, those cool water drops also stick to the surface rather than rolling off.

What makes that happen is the microscopic structure of the surface of the leaf. The petal surface is covered in tiny bumps, and the surfaces of those bumps are covered in even smaller, tiny tiny folds. But those tiny tiny folds are far enough apart that water at the bottom of a drop can get into them and stick to the surface; on most leaves, the folds are closer together, so the water can't stick and slides off.

Here's the research paper.

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06 May 2008

 

The curse of the new-ish lens

No-name handstrap for my Nikon 1More than 15 years ago, the house I was renting with a couple of roommates was burglarized. The thieves stole the usual kinds of things—CDs and other stuff that's easy to fence—and included among that was my Nikon FG SLR and lenses. I had insurance, which replaced that camera with the early-'90s equivalent, the F-601.

The new camera came with a pretty decent Nikon lens, a 35–70 mm zoom. But a few months after I got the camera, the zoom ring on the lens became loose and didn't work properly. I sent it in for warranty repair, and then used the lens through two additional cameras (another F601 I bought after the original got dropped, and my current D50) until last spring.

That's when the zoom ring started misbehaving again, and I replaced it with a new Nikon lens, an 18–135 mm zoom that has worked very well for me, and is usually the kit lens for the higher-end D80 SLR. Until the past few days, when the zoom intermittently stopped autofocusing properly. The barrel of the lens also started to feel a bit loose. So I've sent it, like its predecessor, off to Nikon for repair.

I supposed there's a reason the lower-cost lenses aren't as robust as their professional siblings, but it's not like I abuse them. And that old lens did work great for me for a decade and a half after its initial repair. I still have it downstairs, in fact. Maybe if I can get it to behave I can use it while the other one is in the shop—but there's really no need. I have three other lenses that seem to be working just fine.

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More of the same

Spring sprunging at Flickr.comI met with my oncologist, Dr. Kennecke, today. When I go to see him, I try to moderate my expectations. Pragmatically, I plan on the metastatic tumours in my lungs maybe having grown a little bit, or maybe shrunk a little bit, or maybe stayed stable. I don't go there thinking they will have miraculously disappeared, or that they will have grown dramatically.

And fortunately, that's pretty much where I am. Last week's CT scan showed that the largest of my four lung mets has grown slightly, but is still less than a centimetre across. A second one might also be a little bigger than before. The others seem like they're stable. So my chemo isn't eliminating them, but it appears to be keeping them somewhat at bay.

In the short term, I'm pleased with the other plans Dr. K and I worked out today. I have two more chemo treatments planned this month, the 15th and 16th of this round, which started back in October. Then, finally, I get to take a bit of a break through June, and with luck I might begin a clinical trial of a new artificial monoclonal antibody (more advanced than the Avastin I'm taking now), which may be able to enhance the action of the other chemotherapy agents, perhaps in July.

Having a few weeks off from chemo side effects will be nice. Maybe we'll take a weekend trip to Victoria or something. As nice things go, I'll take what I can get.

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04 May 2008

 

Using our share of the Canadian health care system

It's difficult for me to understand what it's like for my family and friends as I go through cancer treatment. As I've written before, in some ways it's easier for me than for them, because at any time I know how I feel, and at least tell myself that I have a decent sense of how I'm doing. That's not always clear to those close to me, and I know they worry.

I think I have a better understanding of it this week, because my wife had elective surgery a few days ago. She was in hospital overnight (which the doctors had expected and planned for, but which we didn't know about in advance), and has been recovering here at home. Since I'm not on chemotherapy this week, I'm in reasonably good shape and have been able to keep the house running fairly well.

But I wish there was more I could do to alleviate her pain and other discomfort. I also have little sense, from hour to hour, how she's feeling. I feel a bit useless. And this is relatively short term—she's been taking care of me, and doing a great job of it, as I've been through surgeries, chemo, radiation, drastic weight loss, and much more for well over a year.

This is that "in sickness and in health" part they talk about when you get married. I'm glad we can be there for each other.

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03 May 2008

 

Another eulogy

Tomorrow, for the second time this year, I'll be giving a speech at a memorial service. This time it's for my mom's oldest friend Sonia, who died last November. She would have turned 70 in January.

I had no trouble at all putting together a eulogy for my friend Martin in January, but this time around it's a bit more difficult. My relationship with Sonia was different—she was my mother's friend, after all, so every time I saw her it was related to something they were doing together—but also lifelong. By the time I was born in 1969, they had been friends for well over 20 years.

Sonia's three best friends (my mom included) compiled some information and stories for me to work with, and I have some ideas on how to turn them into a speech, but I feel already like there will be too much left out. It's hard to distill 60 years of friendship into five or six minutes, maybe one minute for each decade. And the group at the memorial will be much smaller than Martin's, maybe 50 or 60 people instead of several hundred. I actually find it easier to speak in front of large groups than small.

Anyway, I'll find the key things to talk about, plus some extras I know myself, and I think it will go just fine. I hope I can do Sonia and her friends justice.

I feel a little guilty about one thing: I'm sort of glad to make speeches like this. That's because each memorial I attend means I've made it long enough not to have my own.

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02 May 2008

 

Metal, wood, and plastic

The Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum in Paderborn, Germany, bills itself as the world's largest computer museum. James Harton at Flickr has some photos of key elements of the collection, which include old typewriters and an Enigma machine.

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01 May 2008

 

Mmmm, chemistry experiments

This book about home chemistry experiments looks pretty darn cool. (Via PZ Myers.)

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