Month: April 2006

Fun with lasers

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At the Ambidexterous Magazine launch party last night, Chris Tacklind (of D2M, I think) was showing off his laser-diode glove. These things are lots of fun — I remember my group-mate Michael P. Johnson built one when I was at the Media Lab, and got good enough he could make little figure-8s with two fingers while the other dots circled around them.

Something I hadn’t seen before and liked even better was a sound-display toy Chris was playing with, but I forgot to take a picture that one (eit!). It was just a small cardboard tube with a balloon stretched across one end, and a laser diode shining onto a small mirror stuck to the end of the balloon. You’d speak or sing into the tube and the sound vibrations would show up as little laser shows on the wall in front of you. Use it as a drum and you’d get even cooler effects. (Chris goes around teaching kids to make these things — the one he had was made by a 10-year old.)

Now I want to install something like that into the bottom of the little dumbek drum I have. Stretch a membrane across the bottom of the drum and attach a laser pointer to the inside of the drum shining onto a mirror on the membrane such that it reflects up onto the underside of the white translucent drumhead. Aligned correctly, I bet I could get some fun lasershow-style patterns on the drum head on every beat. (Might need to modify the design if the membrane changes the sound too much — we’ll see.)

Games we materialists play when you aren’t looking

Living in California as I do, I have a lot of friends who have ideas about the physical world that on their face seem ludicrous to a scientifically-minded materialist like myself. For example, people I love and respect think that some people have the ability to heal by adjusting a patient’s “energies” without touching him, others think that spells and witchcraft have power beyond the psychological, and even more think there’s some “guy” up in heaven that controls what happens here on Earth and that 2000 years ago His son rose from the dead. Since I respect these friends a great deal I’ve been looking for common ground, and have started playing a game with myself where I try to translate these beliefs into a form that a philosophically-minded but skeptical materialist like myself can accept.

I mean translate literally — I look for meanings of the words my believer friends use that make the belief plausible in my own world-view while compromising their actual beliefs as little as possible. There are some limits to the game — no amount of translation is going to make the claim that one can change the weather just with one’s mind any more palatable to me. But there is a surprising amount of room to maneuver. For example, I’ve heard some describe the energy manipulated by reiki practitioners as “electricity,” but when pressed it’s clear that’s just a metaphor for something else — they don’t actually mean that this energy can be measured with a voltmeter any more than a physicist talking about an electrical “current” thinks you could steer a boat down a river of the stuff. The goal of my private game then is to answer the question, “a metaphor for what?”

The fun part of this game is that when I’m being honest with myself I rapidly wind up at logical impasses in my own philosophy as well. My latest conundrum has to do with belief in some sort of soul, a “thing” that is a fundamental part of and unique to every living being (or at least every person), and that persists after that person has died. So the game is to come up with something that is (a) something fundamental to the identity of an individual person and yet (b) still exists after the body has turned to dust. As I cast about for things in my own world-view that might fit the bill (including things like “the patterns of memories left in surviving friends and family” and “the combination of genes and upbringing one leaves in one’s own children”) I started to recognize that the idea of a soul is an answer to a basic philosophical question left unanswered by materialism, namely “when we see an object at two points in time, what features are necessary such that we recognize the two viewings as the being of the same object?” I’ve always heard this called the Granddad’s Axe problem:

I’ve got my Granddad’s old axe. I’ve replaced the handle twice, and the head three times, but it’s still my Granddad’s old axe…

We can certainly accept that Granddad’s axe is still the same axe even if we paint it or sharpen it, and might even accept it’s the “same” axe after we’ve replaced both the head and the handle if we use it in the same way, it evokes the same memories of Granddad that it did before, etc. What about people? It’s been said that every molecule in a person’s body is replaced after a decade or two, and certainly I’m very different in both appearance and thinking than I was when I was 12. Am I still the same person I was then, even with all those changes? If so, why do we connect the atoms that made up that child then with the person sitting here typing this now? And if not, is there some 12-year-old boy living today who, based on similarity to that boy of 24 years ago, is more deserving of the title?

Materialism (or my understanding of it at least) doesn’t offer any answers to these questions, nor does it feel the need to do so. The philosophy simply suggests that there are patterns that exist in the world at different points in time, that they follow certain rules, and that any vocabulary that accurately describes those patterns is equally valid (though potentially more or less practical and comprehensible). Unfortunately, just calling such a pattern “soul” doesn’t get us any further — that just amounts to saying “yes, you are the same person as you were when you were 12, and we’ll call the thing that binds those two defined entities together your soul.”

The Original Celebrated Curiously Strong Peppermints

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I’ve eaten so many Altoids peppermints over the years I could probably build a house out of the empty tins. Unfortunately, if I ever want to build an extension to that house I’ll need to find a new candy.

A few days ago I noticed that all the Altoids tins at my local Trader Joe’s had a new “old-timey” look to them, so I bought a tin to see if anything else had changed. Unfortunately, it had. The cosmetics are similar (perhaps even nicer), though the Callard & Bowser logo has been replaced by a note that says “Originally prepared by Callard & Bowser.” In itself that’s not as ominous as it sounds — the Altoids brand was purchased by Wrigley last year, but Callard & Bowser has been owned by Kraft and a number of other large corporations over the years and the quality hasn’t suffered under them. However, the big difference is in the ingredients list. Old ingredients: Sugar, Oil of Peppermint, Gum Arabic, Gelatin, Corn Syrup. New ingredients: Sugar, Gum Arabic, Artificial Flavor, Oil of Peppermint, Gelatin, Glucose Syrup. And the little piece of paper inside the tin that used to say “To this day, Callard & Bowser continues to make ALTOIDS® to the original recipe developed more than 200 years ago” now bears the foreboding warning “Today, all ALTOIDS® varieties including Peppermint, Wintergreen Spearmint, Licorice, and Ginger are made to the same exacting standards as the original ALTOIDS® recipe developed more than 200 years ago.” Uh oh.

With some trepidation I tried one. I’ve had two more since then, each time thinking maybe my taste buds were just out of whack, but no… the curiously strong mints are now a thing of the past. I’ve been trying to foist the rest of the tin off on coworkers, but I think they’re on to me now. Personally I don’t blame them — the experience is similar to chewing on those little sample tubes of Crest toothpaste.

I’m still hoping this is some sort of joke — a cheap knock-off counterfeit smuggled into Trader Joe’s regular shipment, perhaps? I haven’t seen any news or announcement from Wrigley about a change, though they have recently noted that profits on Altoids has been disappointing since the brand was purchased last year, blaming “limited marketing and innovation support“. I can only assume they feel that when it comes to their product, it’s the cost-to-manufacture, the brand and advertising they need to focus on — quality can be sacrificed.

DIY: How to make a brass “Fireball” hanging wall sculpture

Shortly after I moved into my new house I was thinking about artwork for my walls and all of a sudden I had a vision of a sort of Van Goghesque fireball made out of brass or bronze as a wall hanging. It’s been a long time coming, but I finally finished the piece a couple months ago. And since a project is never truly done until you’ve posted a do-it-yourself guide on the Web, I’ve just finished a summary and pictures of the project as well as a project page at instructables.com.

Robot Hazing

From The Onion:

MIT Fraternity Accused Of Robot Hazing

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Several members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology chapter of the Theta Tau fraternity are in campus-police custody today following a brutal hazing incident in which one robot remains missing and two others are in critical condition with extensive circuitry and servo-motor injuries, sources revealed Monday.

In protest, human-emotion-simulator robot Kismet, a respected member of the MIT community, announced that it will only display an expression of disapproval—refusing to smile, show fear, or raise a curious eyebrow—until those responsible receive appropriate punishment.

(Thanks to Jofish for the link!)

ISWC 2006 submissions now being accepted

From the publicity chair for this year’s ISWC: “Submissions now open for the Tenth IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computers! Submissions can include full papers (8 pages), short papers (4 pages), poster papers (2 pages), demonstrations, tutorials and workshops, and exhibits. All submissions are due on April 21st at http://iswc.net.”

See the call for papers for more details.