I for one welcome our new feline overlords

or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Computer

An evening of TED talks
Started with this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA&NR=1 about "filter bubbles" and how the increasingly sophisticated ranking and filtering systems put each of us into a bubble of our own preferential reading, where we only get information that confirms our beliefs, a fast food of information rather than the vegetables of being challenged.

Then this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA by the author of "Eat, Pray, Love". Apart from giving some potentially life-saving advice to people in highly creative jobs, is also just very funny. If her book is of the same quality, I may just have to read it.

Followed by this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y about how in basically any creative endeavour, adding more incentives decreases performance. Tested and proven again and again. Can we stop handing out huge bonuses to CEOs now?

A curious (long) interlude by the French artist JR in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PAy1zBtTbw doing semi-illegal large-scale photo art in dangerous areas.

The title "The Power of Vulnerability" sounded interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o&NR=1

I watched the last one twice.

New set of photos on Picasa: Fasching in München

Mosin' around SF
After a week in Mountain View (where I lost two days to a stupid cold), I'm having a weekend in San Francisco, City of a Thousand Hills. Everytime I visit this city, it has a different feel -- not because it's a different season (it's pretty much always the same). Not because I go to different areas. Just because it's a strange city that hides its true nature from me.

I spend the morning walking down Valencia and back up, which was interesting. Apart from dropping by a store that needs to be a secret a little longer, I found several other cool places, including three used book stores (I'm somehow managing to not come home with an extra wheelbarrow of books), a store called "Stuff" which indeed has all manner of stuff, vintage, modern, weird, funny. I want to buy half of the things there and throw the other half out. Also found a neat store by the name of Paxton Gate, which bills itself as "inspired by nature and the pre-digital era" and has various nice artwork interspersed with all manner of dead animals. Nifty! Somehow I managed to pass by the Pirate Store, though.

After this roughly three-hour walk, I rested briefly before going off to Golden Gate park. Despite its confusing layout and shortage of maps (at least where I was), I found the Japanese Tea Garden and took some time walking real slowly and taking unusual pictures there. Then at sunset, I bussed out to Golden Gate bridge to try to recreate a picture I did there in 2005, but alas! they have redone the area south of the bridge so I couldn't get to the right spot. Nice sunset over the Pacific, though.

I had dinner at the local cult restaurant, run by the disciples of one Sri Chinmoy, a guru I hadn't heard of before. Apparently quite productive, having made 1500 books, 200,000 paintings and 14 million "peace harmony bird" cards. I'm slightly skeptical of these numbers - 10 paintings and almost a thousand cards every day, and a book a week during his writing years? Plus running, meditating, teaching, writing poems, writing songs, giving concerts... But I can't complain too much - I was there right before closing time, so they gave away the cake that couldn't be kept over the weekend. Yum.

Selected pictures 'r' up at https://picasaweb.google.com/110769792326934861724/SFFeb2010#

Tomorrow: The Exploratorium!

Jane Eyre
I've taken to doing more reading, using iBooks when on the go, and I'm going to rotate between classic works, sciencey works, computer works and German stuff. First up: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brönte (funny, the fancy editor here doesn't allow the standard accent composing). I've been wanting to read this one since I read the Thursday Next books, where scenes from Jane Eyre are a recurring feature (BTW, if you haven't read the Thursday Next books, and meta-humor/alternate universes are at all appealing to you, go read!).

<lj-cut text="Notes with spoilers">
I haven't read a lot of contemporary litterature, but I have read enough to recognize the style of writing: Elaborate descriptions of feelings and scenes running sometimes to several pages. Unlike, say, Bram Stoker's Dracula, the characters in this book are not cardboard cut-outs, but have some amounts of internal conflict, especially the main characters. It's not subtle like in today's literature, and each character has a definite and, especially towards the end, obvious role to play in what the book is meant to convey. There's also plenty of tropes, or at least what is now seen as tropes, I don't know if they were at that time: Rich uncle in America dies and leaves a lot of money, virtuous young employee is being seduced by rich employer, etc. But unlike the simpler stories, the characters are more mixed-up: The rich employer is not beautiful nor a total crook, the beautiful suitor is not a scoundrel but a fervent missionary, etc.

What makes this book special for its time, though, is how much it goes up against the existing societal norms. Children and women that stand up for themselves and have good come of it, women who set up independent lives rather than just becoming a man's wife, Christians who do repress their fellow beings in the name of God.

Curiously, the start of this one resembles the start of Harry Potter quite a bit: Parentless child taken in by relatives who hate him/her, make him/her do all the tasks with lots of abuse while spoiling their own kids. Eventually, child goes off to school and finds a better place and real friends. Mr. Brocklehurst even matches Snape well in description.

It wasn't until about the middle of the book that I could predict what was going to happen. In the first parts, things are so, well, commonplace that there's really little setup for the major changes. Once Mr. Richardson reveals that he wants to marry Jane, the next steps were reasonably foreseeable, though.

All in all a good read, though the florid descriptions could run a little long at times. It is worth the reading if nothing else because it was an important work for its time.

Thoughts on measuring the ISO of the human eye
Just read a little article on what the ISO of the human eye is: http://www.pixiq.com/article/eyes-vs-cameras (short answer: can't really say) and started toying with the idea of making a controlled experiment to determine the speed and ISO of the eye -- the aperture is said to be between f/2 (maybe f/3) and f/8.

Tests have shown that images shown for as little as 1/200th of a second can be seen and recognized (tested on fighter pilots). The problem is that to be able to compare what a camera captures with what the eye captures, we'd need some way to quantify how much detail we can actually see. The longer we look at something, the more detail we get out of it, much like frame stacking can be used to reduce noise. But we can't just show a picture to a person for a fraction of a second and ask how much detail there was. One approach would be to show a text and ask the viewer to read it, but that would include the time it takes to actually read the text. We'd need something where fine detail makes the difference between seeing different things. If we could find that, we could see what amount of noise renders the same detail unrecognizable.

I also hold that I've seen the spoke-wheel effect in daylight, but I will have to keep an eye out for seeing it again. It could be interesting to take, say, a bike wheel and rotate it at a certain rate. By covering it with black and white striped cardboard we can test if and at what speed there's a spoke-wheel effect. But I'll have to see it in real life first before I'll go to that bother.

But people with more time on their hands than me have looked into these matters before. I just like to think about them.

Photos for sale at larsrc.zenfolio.com
 In the coming week, I will have the best of my photos up for sale at http://larsrc.zenfolio.com. I'm doing it as a test run - ZenFolio is a pretty slick site and has very reasonable pricing for sales, but they charge $100 per year for the account where you can sell your photos. I'm using the preview period the have to see how much interest it can garner.

Please take a look, or if you know someone who might appreciate them, please spread the word.

I went to the local regular showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show this night. God, it's been way too long, I'd forgotten most of the participation, and a lot of what I remembered was off. But it was good to be back.

The showing is in a little art theatre that's five minutes walk across the bridge. They show it every Friday and Saturday around midnight, in a room that is especially decorated for it - there is even an "Enter at your own risk" sign and frowny Mona Lisas on the walls.

The crowd, however, might as well have been virgins all of them. I get the impression that they had read bits and pieces in the papers - they knew the main places to throw stuff and were pretty timely about it, and knew the standard person calls, but no participation beyond that. Nobody (as far as I could tell in the dark) were dressed up, and nobody got up to dance or anything. They did, however, seem to have a good time. The crowd was mostly women, probably mostly in their twenties, who came mainly for the sexy men.

Because of my lack of recent training, and to better gauge the levels of everybody else, I kept my participation to the fairly clean & simple. I did get laughs at some of the better lines, and no hushings or anything. After the movie was done (everybody stayed in the seats during the credits!), one French girl came over and commened my voice (!), even though she hadn't understood all of it, she liked that I'd spoken up, and hoped I'd be back. I promised her I would, as I have every intention of building up this audience. I will need a partner-in-crime, possibly Mickey, to come along to do the parts that have replies, as they are some of the best ones. I have hope that I can improve this group.
Let there be LIPS!

Rant of the Day: Microwave oven controls
I've had an uneasy co-existence with microwave ovens since they entered my life about ten years ago. In particular, I don't like the huge amount of buttons and settings most of them feature - in my mind, the perfect microwave has two dials: Power and time. Todays breakfast is a perfect example of why.

In a moment of sheer laziness, I bought some frozen breakfast burgers for these two breakfasts I can't have at the Googleplex. The instructions say to defrost for 1:30, then try at high for :40. "Great", I say as I put them in, "there's the defrost button right there." I press it, and the little scrolly display scrolls at me: "MEAT - TOUCH 1 - POULTRY - TOUCH 2 - FISH ..." Figuring "breakfast burger" would not be one of the choices, I "touched" 1, 'cause, hey, there's a meat-like substance in there. But the oven is not done with me: "ENTER WEIGHT," its scrolls spitefully. Great. This is for defrosting large chunks of meat. So the defrost option is useless because it has become too specialized, and now the instructions are useless because they are too specialized. I have to guess at what power setting corresponds to "Defrost". Probably low-ish, depending on the actual output in watts.

If the microwave companies had just had a standard for power, either measured directly in watts, or a fixed scale if you don't want to advertise how much power is actually being used[1], it would have been easy to make universal instructions and to follow them. But no; in the name of making them easier to use for some arbitrary set of use cases, they have been made harder to use for a lot of other use cases. In fact, defrosting large chunks of meat is one of the last things I would want to do with a microwave. If I had some microwave popcorn, I would have to try the "Popcorn" setting just to see if it actually works. If the timing or power is off by just a bit - which is quite likely given the lack of standardization - my popcorn are going to be unpopped or burned.

The breakfast burger was about as unpleasant as I expected, but that, I asked for.

[1] In which case, making one that goes to 11 actually makes sense: http://xkcd.com/670/

Monterey and surroundings
Today was my day to go see stuff (yesterday was my shopping and goofing off day). So I rented a car (!) early as could be and went off to sunny Monterey Bay to see fishies and sea otters. The drive down would beautiful (though it beats me why the richest areas of the US have the crappiest highways), with the sun occasionally breaking through to light up the patches of fog that were left across the mountain road like puffs from a giant's cigar. Didn't expect the looong stretch of marshland, but there were some ginormous dunes of a beautiful rounded shape that I marked for the return journey, having found little chance of stopping at the highway for photos.

Cannery Row and Monterey Bay Aquarium are quite the gentrified area, not to mention one big tourist trap. The aquarium was not actually as big as I had expected, and the otters in a fairly small area being rather uninteresting today. The best part was clearly the sea dragons, especially the leafy ones, they are utterly beautiful.

I made sure to have some extra time to go back to the dunes I saw on the way, full hour and a half before official sunset. Unfortunately, the road that seemed to lead to them led to a state beach that didn't have those nice forms at all. I tried to get what I could, but it was not what I hoped for.

The way back was not *quite* as scary as I was fearing. Yes, it was dark and winding and steep, but at least it was too dark to see the steep cliffs and sheer drops next to the road.

Lessons learned: An hour before sunset is not too long for sunset photography. When asking a local about the terrain, be sure to mention what you're looking for, that he may more accurately guide you. And make sure the pockets on your new fancy new photo bag are securely zipped when rooting around with the tripod, lest one fall out, roll down the dune, over the edge and drop down on the beach.

Why I talk to people on the train/bus/plane
I'm one of those annoying people who'll actually try to engage in conversation with complete strangers (when I'm feeling sufficiently extrovert). Today, as I was going back from San Francisco on CalTrain, I sat (in the quite nice new CalTrain cars) across from a nice lady probably in her 60ies and started talking with her about this and that. Of all coincidences, it turned out that she was from München as well! She'd been in the Bay Area for three years back around the .com bubble and was back to visit. So we had plenty to talk about between how the 'Valley had changed, how I like München, etc.
When I mentioned that I was a programmer, she asked me if it was possible to get a good job as a programmer. I was kinda boggled at the question, but proceeded to tell her something about the Google culture. She was quite interested, because, as it turned out, her 24-year old son was taking an E-commerce education, and the whole family was despairing that he'd ever be able to find a job and trying to discourage him from it. Say what? I had to restrain myself from calling her directly crazy, but I was quite insistent that her son had made an excellent career choice, and that they should support him as much as possible.
I would have told her to support him in any career that he was enthusiastic about. Whatever career you try, there's a chance you make it and a chance that you fail, so why no do something that you like? As it were, I have the lady my email so she could put me in contact with her son. Obviously, I don't know if he's good enough to work at Google, but it sounds like he could use some support or somebody who can convince his family that he's not crazy, and that I will be happy to give him.

Also, I happened by the opening of a frozen youghurt place called Yoogl. Yes, done in bright colors like Google. Obviously, Google needs to work out an employee discount here. They have more fruit than sugary toppings. I like that.


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