Monday 2 November 2009

Giant Spider Costume

Each Hallowe'en, I get the urge to do something more interesting than just giving out candy and taking our kids around the block - wouldn't it be neat to have some scary street theatre going on? Imagine a ghastly wagon drawn by a team of drooling quasimodos in straight jackets, clanging an iron bell, wailing in agony and despair!

I wasn't quite that ambitious this year, but the spirit of Hallowe'en did move me to make a giant spider costume!

The main thing I wanted was the sense of independently moving legs. Not dangling legs, but legs that actually walk. I wondered if I built ski-like structures attached to my feet, I could use my legs to control four of the spider legs, and my arms to control the remaining four.

After testing a prototype using two paint-roller handles I had at home, I was very encouraged. I went to Home Depot and bought myself sixteen 48" of them (which cleaned out Home Depot!). Paint-roller handles are thin metal tubes, coated with a laminate that takes paint nicely. Tou can saw and drill through them easily, but they're strong, and most importantly they're light enough that they don't stress the home-made hinges I was relying on.

I then bought a second-hand set of hockey shoulder pads - a set with nice, large plastic shoulders I could screw into.

Actually, making the holes in the hockey pads was the most dangerous part! The synthetic fabric inside the shoulder pads can wind around the drill bit once you punch through the hard exterior. SNAP! Off to to the hardware store again to replace the drill bit.

The front and back legs were attached using hinges, to keep them in a vertical plane. The main problem with bent-knee designs is keeping the knees from falling sideways - which works okay for the "pile of spaghetti" costume, but not so well for a functioning spider.

The middle pair of legs on each side would be controlled by my arms, so I made universal hinges out of a loop of clothesline wire. Clothesline wire is fantastic, but definitely wear gloves. I duct-taped an old pair of sneakers to the bottom skis, and made a few wobbly laps around the basement.

The clothesline wire came in handy in several other places - creating the connection between the skis and the front/back leg pairs, and as flexible connectors for the handles to control the side-leg pairs.

To decorate the legs, I bought two thicknesses of pipe-insulating foam, and duct taped the heck out of it, then spray painted it in a mottled pattern.

Everyone was surprised that the spider wasn't going to be black, but I wanted as much contrast between the spider's legs and my own body as possible.

The head/body and abdomen were made out of inexpensive chicken wire, wrapped in plaster cloth. Chicken wire is a bitch to work with, especially if your shears are rusty, but it bonds to itself nicely and lets you make great volumes.

I'd planned to do three coats, but I settled for two in most places, with special reinforcement around the neck and other weight-bearing areas.

As soon as I got the eyes on the head, my six year-old refused to be in the same room as it. Since I was going to be lurching after her all night on Hallowe'en, I figured she ought to give it a cute name to help her not be afraid of it. She suggested, 'Bloodie'.

Walking around the house with my mask on, it became apparent that there wasn't nearly enough air flow. The neck seal was nice and tight, and the mask has a tendency to fill up with warm exhaled air. After getting a bit dizzy, I realized I could manage it by deliberately blowing out of the mouth-hole, which would cause fresh air to come in around the edges.

The pedipalps are are dollar-store plastic gourds!

As late as Saturday afternoon, I had yet to try all three pieces together. I could just about get the legs on by myself, but I needed help for the other pieces. As the clocked ticked down to trick-or-treating time, my construction got more and more improvised.

The abdomen was held on by a garrotte-like loop of clothesline wire, which I kept off my neck by passing it through a luggage strap that I fastened around my chest.

The head was then fastened on using a combination of clothesline and bungee cords. One problem was that the abdomen hung down limply like a backpack, instead of sticking straight out - we tried some last-minute engineering but we couldn't make it work in the twilight, so I went out droopy!

As I was sealed in, I got a brief spell of claustrophobia. The abdomen pushed the head far forward, so all I could see was a patch of ground directly in front of me - only a foot or so past my forelegs.

I would need a spider-herder! Fortunately I had a couple of volunteers, my wife (who seems to have escaped the evening without being in a photo) and my sister-in-law, Julain:

Looking at this photo now, I realize her make-up job was way more hideous than my spider! She looks like she's possessed by the ghost of Quentin Crisp. *shiver*

I laugh when I see this photo, the caption ought to be, "Middle-aged weirdo dresses up to hiss at your children." I guess the effect was much better in person because Hallowe'en night itself was a blast.

People kept stopping us to take photos of us, or have their friends take one of them with us, and a couple of cars were nearly rear-ended.

That made up for the fact that walking around like this is like trying to manage two sets of ski equipment at the same time while working out in a sensory deprivation tank. Just crossing the road was an act of faith in my handlers. I could see my legs light up in the car headlights, but very little else!

I tripped several times on the sidewalk, but fortunately the only fall was during the test run in the afternoon. (Avoid grass. And curbs.)

Fortunately I could hear the shrieks and laughs of the other passers by, which was a lot of fun. All in all a great success!

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Unbelievably Good Banana Curry

I ad-libbed a curry yesterday, and the leftovers were so good today I nearly ate my wife's portion. It's a sweet, very mild curry - which was great for our kids. Adding the banana is something my father does!

Here's the recipe as best I can remember it:
  • Fry 1lbs ground chicken or turkey until cooked, set aside;
  • In a pot, fry 2 medium onions, 1 zucchini until cooked;
  • Add spices, allow them to roast for a minute or two:
    1.5 tsp curry powder
    1 tsp turmeric
    a pinch of cinnamon
  • Add the remaining ingredients:
    796mL can of diced tomatoes
    the cooked meat
    2/3 of a medium banana, chopped
    1/4 cup dried currants
  • Bring to gentle boil, then reduce heat to simmer a bit;
  • Add salt, cayenne pepper to taste.
Mmm, curry. I forgot garlic, that would probably be good to add.

For a vegetarian version, I usually replace the meat with chick peas (man, I love chick peas) and immediately after adding the tomato I take a wand blender and blend the chick peas, zucchini, onion and tomato until some of it is pureed (makes it nice and thick) but there are still identifiable bits in it.

Monday 18 May 2009

The Zero-Prep Scavenger Hunt for Kids

We were trying to decide what to do with the kids today when it occurred to me that it would be fun to have a scavenger hunt. The problem was that I hadn't prepared anything ahead of time, and the kids were already antsy enough that there wasn't time to do anything.

So I faked a break-in.

I kidnapped one of Morgan's toy mice, grabbed a handful of furniture from its house along with it, and stuffed them into my jacket pocket. Leaving a few telltale items sprinkled on the porch, I called Morgan down to investigate.

The star of the day's entertainment was our cheap electronic stud finder, which I claimed was a toy detector. It has green and red lights, it makes an authoritative-sounding beeping noise, and a sneaky grownup can control when it goes off by surreptitiously sliding a finger behind it while it's on.

Aiming the toy detector at various parts of our neighbourhood, we quickly determined that the stolen toys had been taken in the direction of ... the park!

We came back in to get sweaters and snacks for the excursion. Morgan knew something was up; she's nearly six, old enough to innately grasp the difference between reality and Daddy's silly tricks, even if she is still sometimes confused about where the border is.

Once she was satisfied that there was fun to be had, however, she was willing to suspend her disbelief, and eagerly added some decorative bedding to the tupperware container I had brought to store recovered toys.

Once I had established the premise, the stud finder worked amazingly well. Danielle and I strolled along the path, and I just had to point the thing into the bushes and off the kids went with gusto. Usually this was a bush we had just passed - a side effect of the "zero-prep" aspect of the scavenger hunt.

The kids got so excited by all of this that they started asking passers-by if they had seen the lost mouse. After an hour of this, we came across one couple who had already heard of our search from other park-goers! Isn't it amazing how society rallies around a crisis?

One of the nice things about the zero-prep scavenger hunt is that you can fine-tune things as you go. When the kids are climbing trees, chasing each other, snacking, or otherwise keeping themselves busy, you can just enjoy the scenery. But whenever there's a lull in the action, you can drop a toy or even just bleep the toy detector and off they scurry!

Here's a tip, though: if you drop a toy, remember where you dropped it. After dropping a charming, faux-wicker mouse suitcase in some bushy grass, I forgot to look around for landmarks. Or a decent landmark, at any rate. I could have sworn it was by this distinctive-looking tufty bit.. but then, you're surrounded by tufty bits. It's amazing how fast a lawn can turn on you.

And then, you have to explain why the toy detector suddenly isn't working. "Interference from the bridge?" was the best I could come up with.

Unable to bear the thought that I was personally responsible for the loss of this helpless, cherished toy, I suggested we link arms and walk through the field in a line, like you see on the TV when volunteers are helping the police looking for a body.

The parallel was somewhat uncomfortable, and we got quizzical looks from the joggers and bicyclists whizzing past us as we inched along. But never fear, the suitcase turned up and my "decent parent" status was saved.

Somehow, Morgan never caught on to what I was doing. In the end, she concluded that I must have set up all these toys two days earlier, "On your way home from work!"

My only disappointment was that the kids couldn't operate the toy detector themselves, for obvious reasons. Had they been able to do that, I'm sure we'd have been running full tilt the whole time!

Tuesday 5 May 2009

What I Love About Einstein

I'm working my way through a copy of Robert W. Lawson's translation of Einstein's Relativity. This isn't a mathematical treatise, but a tiny paperback written by Einstein in 1916 to explain relativity to non-physicists.

It's a quaint little book, partly because of the language - but most strikingly by the way it stands in stark contrast to the modern era of predigested sound bites that deliberately pander to the gut instincts and short attention span of the intended audience.

As Einstein writes in the preface,
"Despite the shortness of the book, [it presumes] a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader."
I don't tote this around to look smart on the subway, that furrowed brow isn't deep thought so much as frustration at the fuzziness of my own mind. No, I picked this up after reading something about relativity and suddenly becoming desperately curious to learn just how Einstein was able to envision a description of the world so utterly different than the classical view that preceded it.

Not in the sense of, "My God, just how smart was he?" but literally: how do you make a discovery like this?

In case you're rusty, relativity is a refinement over the venerable Euclidean geometry, whose origins go back as far as 300 B. Euclidean geometry views of the world as composed of infinitely long straight lines, utterly flat planes, and perfect spheres. I first started learning it in primary school, and learned more about it for so many years afterwards that its abstracted, clinical view become second-nature to how I looked at every day things.

My kitchen table may not be a perfect plane, but that's table's problem, right?

As Einstein puts it,
"By reason of your past experience, you would certainly regard everyone with disdain who should pronounce even the most out-of-the-way proposition of this science to be untrue. But perhaps this feeling of proud certainty would leave you immediately if someone were to ask you: 'What, then, do you mean by the assertion that these propositions are true?'"
Geometry of any sort is just a mathematical contrivance, useful to the extent that it can be used to describe reality. If you get in a convertible driving 80 km/hr, and you throw a baseball ahead of you at 50 km/hr, classical mechanics would suggest that the baseball is would start off traveling at 130 km/hr, relative to the road. So far so good.

The key observation that spurred Einstein forward was the experimental discovery that the speed of light is not relative to the motion of the observer. Briefly, if you're zipping along at half the speed of light, and someone on the road shines a laser after you, classical mechanics would predict that the laser passes you at half the speed of light. What actually happens is that the laser light zips by you at full speed.

In fact, no matter how fast you're going, in whatever direction, light will still pass you at the same speed, regardless of the motion of the light source relative to you.

This is bizarrely counter-intuitive, to say the least - and if you think that's weird, the implications of Relativity are even more bizarre. The fact that Einstein came up with a rigorous geometry that made sense of this state of affairs was such a coup that his name became a household synonym for 'genius'.

The paradoxes of Relativity make for fascinating reading, but it's not my goal to rehash them here. What I want to do is highlight what Einstein had to do to get to a solution, and that was to question his own assumptions.

These weren't assumptions that had been given to him explicitly, like unjust laws he intuitively knew had to be overthrown and - dammit - he was the guy to do it! These were assumptions that nobody knew they held.

Imagine yourself doing a bit of math to try to figure out this speed of light business, and you find yourself muttering, "Hmm, divide this by the velocity.. carry the one.. and, oh yeah, I guess I'd assumed that distances were the same for everyone. Whoops." (erase erase erase) "And now multiply by the .. oh wait, I suppose I was assuming that time passes the same for all observers. How daft." (erase erase erase)

This doesn't happen every day. It requires a rare combination of precision of meaning, shaving each statement of belief into its component parts to be independently scrutinized, with the integrity to be willing to let go of any of them that don't pass muster, plus the courage and willpower to follow through with reconstituting the surviving pieces into a new worldview, however unfamiliar.

Whether or not your university calculus has rusted out of your head completely (as has mine), or if math has never been your friend, in an era where argument is increasingly reduced to punchy ad hominem attacks, this strikes me as an eminently worthy and useful mental posture to strive for.

That's what I love about Einstein.

Monday 27 April 2009

How BlackBerries Caused the Credit Crisis

Ever been to one of those meetings where, halfway through someone's crucial point, the suit pulls out his BlackBerry? As the tiny screen draws him in, he stops listening, and his voice dwindles to a murmur.

"Uh huh."

"Uh huh."

Turns out that's not the only thing dwindling. His IQ is shrinking, too. By one estimate, multitasking shaves up to 40 points off your IQ.

Okay, so your boss isn't paying attention - but think: across the whole subscriber base, this could add up to quite a lot!

It's easy enough to estimate how many IQ-point hours have been lost to this tiny device. Let's say they're used an average of 20 minutes a day, and that there's been linear growth in the user base. That works out to .. 520 billion IQ-point-hours lost.

520 billion?! That's the equivalent of 35,000 very bright people available full-time for thirty years. That's one hell of a mental handicap.

What could that be doing to society?

Fortunately, a lot of his huge deficit of this is harmlessly discharged on things like, oh, forgetting to flush the toilet, increased golf scores, and walking into telephone poles.

But what about the rest? What might go wrong if you hand out IQ-depleting devices to management teams everywhere?

I admit, this is far from conclusive, but I think I might be on to something.

Sunday 26 April 2009

A Dirty Secret

A couple of years ago, my wife Danielle and I stumbled across The Secret, the by now well known self-help film about the law of attraction.

The Secret's take on this is decidedly metaphysical, but that in itself doesn't put me off, and we chose to ignore the money-obsessed undertone of the narrative in favour of the central message. Before long our enthusiasm had transformed into a pair of tickets to go and see the speakers featured in the film at an event in downtown Toronto.

The law of attraction isn't entirely a metaphysical concept; there's some fairly down-to-earth research about the effectiveness of positive thinking. An Australian professor by the name of Richard Wiseman did some interesting research into people who considered themselves lucky and unlucky.

In one experiment, he had self-selected "lucky" and "unlucky" participants count the photographs in a newspaper. Unbeknownst to them, he had inserted a giant ad into the paper reading, "Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250." The lucky people found this significantly more often than the unlucky people, leading Wiseman to believe that lucky people were actually just more observant.

Eventually, Wiseman concluded that luck was anything but, and that it consisted of learnable habits. In a 2003 BBC News article, Prof. Wiseman wrote,
"The results reveal that although these people have almost no insight into the causes of their luck, their thoughts and behaviour are responsible for much of their good and bad fortune."
Wiseman went on to write a book about how to think and behave like a lucky person. I consider myself a lucky person, and happen to think my life is pretty good. If there's a way to spread this around, so much the better!

Unfortunately, The Secret was an entirely different animal.

On the morning of the event, the registration lineup was immense, snaking out of the auditorium's ample lobby and across the skyway into the adjoining hotel. After about twenty minutes of under-caffeinated people watching, it dawned on me that everyone looked somehow different than the people I was used to seeing.

Was it the almost imperceptibly eccentric body language of entrepreneurs? A vaguely hungry look in their eyes? The subtle difference between dressing for success and dressing for imminent success. ("Please, haven't I waited long enough?")

Over the course of the day, it became obvious that The Secret was little more than a marketing umbrella over a number of otherwise unaffiliated self-help mavens. Impressively charismatic mavens, mind you. Mixed in with the motivational speeches was a strange mixture of useful tidbits (including ideas that led me to the realization that I'm uncomfortable with the possibility of earning more money than my father, and an entertaining presentation of a video very much like this one).

Overall, I found it alarming just how unabashedly the whole thing presented itself as a multi-level marketing scheme. (Take our trainers' training courses and you, too, can be successful on the self-help talk circuit!)

Danielle, bless her, signed up for a free money management follow-on conference. I never believed it would come through, assuming it was just a grab for addresses to pad out their mailing list, but months later her ticket arrived in the mail - entitling her to an excruciating weekend of psychological assaults.

She's very self-aware gal (this helps, being a marriage and family therapist), and immediately noticed how the most hard-core sales pitches (for thousands of dollars' worth of training workshops, where they purport to tell you the real goods) always occurred in the hour preceding meal times, when participants are at their most vulnerable. The way that those who identified themselves as being unconcerned about money were singled out for scorn. The way that people who left early were derided as quitters with no potential.

When the woman to her right broke down in tears, deeply in debt already and having just signed up for a whole series of conferences she couldn't afford, Danielle couldn't bear any more and left.

I guess that makes me lucky I didn't go!

It annoys me that this sort of thing happens. People who are curious about the nature of the world - or worse, those who genuinely need help - can easily find themselves exploited by people claiming they've got the answers, and it discredits the whole search whenever a big cashectomy operation like this sets up shop.


Monday 6 April 2009

Stockholm Syndrome 2.0

(Or, "In the New Economy, Downtime is Cool.")

One of the things that I find entertaining about Twitter is the way they've made downtime cool. Right now I'm looking at a picture of an ice cream cone, telling me that it's okay that I can't update my profile. "I can chill."

Man, that's a nice error page. It's cool.

It's so cool that it makes me feel cool that I'm using an app this cool. In fact, soon someone's going to tell me what this ice cream cone is called, and then I'm going to be even cooler, 'cause I'll be, you know, in the know.

By the time I've figured all this out, I'm not even upset that it lost my edit. I don't know whether this was intentional, but I'm sure they're on to something.

An editor at once remarked to me that managing his pool of writers, divided between PC users and Mac users as it was, had led him to believe that Mac was a kind of cult. When the PC users had problems, they'd swear and groan; theirs was a bond of shared suffering. When the Mac users had problems (which, in his view, was about as frequently*), they would calmly take it and continue working, apparently grateful to be using a computer this cool**.

"Any problems?" he'd ask.


My favourite example of this sort of is not as slick, not as Web 2.0 - it's simple but clever.

I've had to do business on an unfortunate number of occasions with the City of Toronto parking authority, which lets you pay your tickets through an IVR system. Each time, after typing in my eight-digit ticket ID number, the recorded voice says pleasantly:
Please wait while that information is looked up on the computer.
Sure, I know how you feel. Don't you hate slow computers? One time I was in line at the - hey, wait a second!

This app is wasting my time, and yet I'm feeling sorry for it having to wait some other computer is putting it througgh, like some Web 2.0 version of Stockholm Syndrome.

In a way, this is a lot like like the so-called Higher Authority tactic in negotiating. "My manager is very stingy," says the front office sales guy, "but I'll see what I can do for you."

I should try that in my apps.
Please wait while I talk to the app server tier, this takes a long time. I mean forever. We'll be lucky if the results come back before the connection times out. ... Oh, here you go, here's results 1-100.
Anyone out there deliberately put this to good use?

* This was in 1997.
** They're even cooler now.

Monday 30 March 2009

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of data

Interesting article by some Google folks about the effect that having access to a really, really huge text corpus has on machine translation. They argue that as the corpus of available documents gets bigger, you need less and less structure in your training data, and less complex algorithms to make use of it.

Every ontology - a formal structure representing a set of concepts - is a treaty between people who have agreed to use it, but as the scope gets larger this gets ever more politically fraught, never mind the complexity issues. They reckon the semantic web (in which web content is marked up according to an ontology to make it more machine-legible) is likely to be surpassed at the starting gate by something 'dumber', but informed by a trillion-document corpus.

There's an entertaining bit at the end, where they posit that these statistical tools may actually help schema/ontology designers with semantic auto-complete. You start creating a table named CARS with columns MAKE and MODEL, and (because it knows these concepts fly together in the corpus) it could auto-suggest columns such as YEAR and COLOUR.