Tuesday, February 28, 2006

I Gotta Mind Like A Sieve

Lucky numbers, in the math world, are a set of numbers created through a specific weeding process. First, start with an infinite list of numbers starting with 1, and remove all of the even numbers. The lowest number remaining greater than 1 is 3. Therefore, remove every third number. the next lowest number that remains is 7, so remove every seventh number. Continue on like that.

The resulting numbers should go: 1, 3, 7, 9, 13, 15, 21, 25 and so on.

The process of creating a pattern to eliminate numbers in math is called sieving. The most well-known sieve is for prime numbers. Because prime numbers are only divisible by 1 and themselves, the sieve is a process of going through each number and removing all future multiples.

Looking up information about sieves lead me to a page about colanders.

Apparently, there is an urban legend about cops who would place a colander on the head of a suspect and wire it to a photo copier. The photo copier had a piece of paper on it that said “Lying.” Every time the police would ask a question, they would press the copy button. When the suspect finally confessed, the cops would switch the paper in the machine.

According to the story, this always got thrown out of court.

There is also a story, that I read in a Robertson Davies book, about a culture that tested the virginity of their young women by having them carry water in a sieve. Only virgins, apparently, could do it. The trick was to grease your sieve, and the oil would keep the water from going through the holes.


Pirke Avot is a Jewish ethics guide from the fourth century, and the last chapter is a collection of aphorisms. Number 18 is:

“There are four types among those who sit in the presence of the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. 

‘The sponge,’ who soaks up everything. ‘The funnel,’ who takes in at this end and lets out at the other. ‘The strainer,’ who lets out the wine and retains the dregs. ‘The sieve,’ who removes the coarse meal and collects the fine flour.”

Which doesn’t bode well for this site.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Strange Effects

When a city is planning a public hearing about the status of a property, Texas requires notification for every property owner within 200 feet. A city can add to that measure, if so desired. Waxahachie, for instance, also notifies the family living in the house as well as the property owner, but does not extend the distance. Often, 200 feet incorporates all the interested parties, and often it does not.

Before a zoning meeting this week, I wrote a very short preview outlining the scheduled public hearings. During one, a slightly larger amount of fairly loquacious citizens chose to speak for a rather long time. What they had in common was living in the neighborhood, but outside the 200 feet. Silently bemoaning their chattering, I realized I had done this to myself. Writing the preview informed a new subset of the population and increased the odds that someone — or several people — would have a problem with the project.

No one brought any issue the commissioned hadn’t already considered, and so our only investment was time. Had one of these protesters brought important information to the table, though, it could have theoretically swayed the vote. This time, though, it did not.

Without going door to door and explaining the zoning request to every homeowner, it is impossible to find the one with that information. The state deems 200 feet as an appropriate radius to find that person. Waxahachie adds a layer with their homeowner clause. We add a layer with the newspaper. Each layer increased the traffic, but not necessarily the effectiveness, in this case.

But newspapers are more about the space between stories than the actual stories, and so our cumulative coverage is more important than single article. Still, my fairly momentary decision directly added about a hour to my work day. And I kept about fifteen people from getting home on time.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ten Pins and the Truth

Susie Minshew is a bowling coach, and she uses bowling to teach life. Part of that teaching is direct: she has gotten her students to lose weight or gain self-confidence through bowling. Part of that is more abstract. When we had our mini-lesson, the first thing she asked me was what I hoped to gain from the practice. She will take whatever answer you give, from “I want to average 250,” to “I want to have a good time.” Then the lesson proceeds from there. Ultimately, you are supposed to lose the obsession toward pins without losing competitiveness. I asked to have a good time, and I did, I also got a few strikes. She is considered one of the greatest coaches in bowling.

Minshew also knows a great deal about the mechanics, physics, biology and philosophy behind bowling, and she writes, which makes her perfect for the Funnel Method. If that sentence seems ridiculous, that’s partly bowling’s own fault. Minshew believes that bowling and golf were equally honorable fifty years ago, but that while golf chose to be elite and expensive, bowling chose to be universal and cheap. Bowling provided house shoes, house balls and bumper lanes. As a result, bowling is often thought of as the working-class semi-sport, and golf brings in billions of dollars in television, advertising and in useless office knick-knacks.

Professional bowlers use different balls the same way golfers use different clubs. There is a plastic spare ball that does not hook on the lane. It offers a more direct shot, whereas the regular ball can be spun to curve in on that front pin. This is only one of many examples. Bowling shoes are fairly complicated as well, and come with removable friction pads. Professional bowlers play seven game sets, throwing 15 pound balls. The point is that bowling could have a very different reputation, and there are now 100 million bowlers worldwide.

The point is also that most of us are largely ignorant of many interesting aspects of bowling. The lane is very expensive and complicated. It is made of two different kinds of wood: hard maple up front where the ball hits, and softer pine in the middle where the ball rolls. The grains in the pine can actually be placed to favor right or left handed bowlers.

The lane is oiled more heavily in the middle than near the pins, because bowlers don’t want the same slide near the end. We are talking about very small measurements. No dent in the floor can be more than, if I remember the number, 1/4000th of an inch off the surface plane. The oil is a thin application, maybe three units of oil. It is often applied more heavily in the middle of the lane to create a hump that the ball will glide around, but there are regulations about the ratio between the middle and the edge of a lane.

By looking at a lane up close, Minshew can tell you the thought process that went into creating the lane. Learning how to make practical decisions based on understanding the environment makes good bowlers, it makes people good at anything, and it is very important to the Funnel Method.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Closer, do wa do, let me emit clicking sounds in your ear

For Valentine’s Day, I received a chocolate bar that combines two of my passions: conservation and candy.

The Endangered Species Chocolate Company donates 10 percent of the profits from each bar of chocolate to help save a different endangered species. This was a dolphin bar, which came with delicious bits of cherry — not dolphin — and was sweetened with “unbleached water-filtered beet sugar.”

There is a little essay about the marvelous dolphin inside the wrapper. Dolphins use a sense called echolocation to identify their surroundings. The dolphin sends out clicking sounds that bounce off fish, rocks and Jacques Cousteau, and return to the dolphin’s jaw and ear bones. Through triangulation, the dolphin can pick up the general size, location and density of the object. Bats and whales also use echolocation.

And so do humans. We are able to tell where a sound is coming by calculating the distance between the near ear and the far ear. The ridges inside our ears help translate the sound waves into information the brain can understand. Apparently, if you place small bits of clay inside your ear — not in the canal, please — to change the shape, it will take a few hours for your brain to relearn the code. During that time you will not be able to accurately judge where sounds are coming from.

Some blind people have become so trained in human echolocation that they can ride a bike using echoes. After becoming attuned enough to the process of translating echoes, every footstep can yield information about the environment.

This reminds me of that moment in “The Matrix” where Joe Pantoliano is reading lines of code and “notices” an attractive woman. The difference is that Joey Pants had just become fully adapted to a process, which is more like fully learning a language, and echolocation involves becoming fully integrated with the environment, which is a beautiful idea if you think about it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Old Country

Yesterday I interviewed two sisters in their seventies whose house burned down. They had lived there since 1944. I learned about them through a retired real estate agent/ used car salesman, who drove me from the First State Bank to their aunt’s house, where they are staying during rebuilding efforts. On the drive, he said, “These girls are from another time.”

The property was gone and cleaned up — so I’ve never seen even a picture of what it looked like — but still yielded plenty of secrets. In a pile of burned out metal scrap, I found parts of a victrola. They apparently had a large collection of 78s. I asked about potential artists, and they couldn’t remember.

“A lot of old country,” they said.

“Like Jimmie Rodgers?”

“Yeah, and him.”

So that dates it to before 1933. It’s a real shame that a collection like that is gone. I can only imagine what was in there. They also had a violin from the 1500's that burned up.

Also in the dirt I found several square nails. I put one in my pocket. Immediately, it reminded me off the nails that went up online after “The Passion of The Christ” came out. I started thinking about a report I read saying that severing a certain nerve in the muscle between the thumb and forefinger is considered one of the most intense experiences of pain possible.

This nail is pretty amazing. There are apparently three ways of making nails: hand-made, cut nails, and wire nails. Wire nails are what we used today. This, I think, is a cut nail, meaning it was machine cut from a piece of steel. That probably dates the house before 1900. The nail is exactly four inches long (size 20d in nail terms), and the shaft is slightly v-shaped instead of straight. I don’t know how that wouldn’t split the wood.

The man who cleaned through the pile of scrap also found their class rings from high school, and one was a valedictorian.

On the side of the property was an outhouse. They had never installed indoor plumbing. The closest they allowed pipes was to the front porch, but not inside the house. Next to the outhouse was a chicken coop, and they used to raise chickens for meat and eggs until the wolves and snakes started getting bad.

They lived on 75 acres of cotton and corn growing land, which was unharmed due to wind direction. Every year they rent it out to an 80-year-old farmer who harvests the crop and pays them in money and corn. They have never signed a contract.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

All Kethcup Has Is Lycopene

From our always enterprising creative conservation reporter:

Driving through the Sonoma wine country, one might notice fields of yellow mustard plants growing with the short vines. Mustard is grown near grapes because it has a symbiotic effect on the soil, restoring nitrogen for the grapes to grow.

Mustard is apparently a super food as well.

For eating, the seed provides a wide range of health benefits from omega-3 to properties that help combat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.

Mustard seed is also at the forefront of bio-diesel technology. The Department of Energy has set out to find the most likely candidate for making bio-diesel, and created a 14-point test based on where and how the crop grows, and how broad geographically, cost-effectively and efficiently it can be grown. Mustard cuts the mustard on all fourteen.

Plus, after the oil is ground from the seed, the remaining meal can then be used as a pesticide.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Small Things

Fractal geometry is a branch of mathematics that deals with finding recurring patterns on large and small scales. Fractals are based on formulae repeated many times to create patterns. One example of a fractal in nature is a mountain. From far away, the mountain has a jagged appearance. Up close, the pieces of the mountain resemble the general rocky appearance — each rock looks like a small mountain — but also have different qualities.

Fractals make incredible designs that yield discoveries with every magnification.

Richard P. Taylor is an associate professor at the University of Oregon. He teaches what is an apparently very popular course called Physics of Light and Color. He also uses fractal geometry to study the work of Jackson Pollack — examining the paint splatters in high magnification — and has questioned the authenticity of some newly discovered Pollack paintings. He located very precise patterns in 14 genuine Pollacks that did not appear in these new works. That doesn’t make them fakes, it just puts a question mark on the table.

This reminded me criminal tremors, which are method of spotting a forged signature by looking for vibrations at the start of a letter caused by a split second of doubt. Patricia Highsmith wrote a book called “The Tremor of Forgery” (the main character of the book also wrote a book by the same title, I think).

This idea is also similar to micro-expressions — small facial ticks we make while lying. This appeared in “Blink” and also in a New York Times Magazine article last week.

Charles and Ray Eames touched on this with “Powers of Ten.” Nature doesn’t provide a steady stream of content. There are always periods of high activity surrounded or followed by periods of high inactivity. All the fractal drawings have large empty middles and intricate borders, and that pattern is always related regardless of the magnification.

This plays out everywhere from city planning, to the construction of atoms, and from outer space to personal workload.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

On living and working

Neil Young was on Fresh Air today talking about his recent aneurysm and subsequent treatment. In diagnosing the problem, the doctor told Young, “You’ve got nothing to worry about, you’ve probably had this for 100 years. But I’ve got a big problem. It’s very dangerous, and I’ve got to get it out right away.”

That exchange — the patient being fine but the doctor having a problem — reminded me of that line in the last few chapters of “The World According to Garp,” where Garp defines a writer as a doctor that only deals with terminal cases. A patient is a human and guaranteed nothing, and therefore has nothing to worry about. But a doctor is a worker and responsible for another life, and therefore needs to be very careful.

Kinda Sorta Shame On Me

Unfortunately, the link died on my previous post about Vicki Bier, the professor using game theory to reinforce homeland security. There are other articles, but that one was the most in depth.

It turns out Bier’s research has been published and will continue to be published. This is a classic example of where The Funnel Method would become useful. Her ideas seem very important, but they can really only be found in a $100 textbook written for “Graduate students and academics in probability & statistics, reliability, and survival analysis, industrial & software engineering, operations and applied mathematics research.”

The Funnel Method would pair this study with a dedicated writer to create a version for the masses. Inevitably it would lose a lot of the depth that comes from technical and expertise writing, but it would also dig deeper than the original newspaper article can appropriately dig. A worthwhile compromise, I think.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Game Theory and Homeland Security

This story has a lot to say and doesn’t get to say a lot, which is the frustrating thing about trying to learn about national security tactics. It’s a bit like describing sea creatures by examining ripples on the surface of a lake.

The Civil War Would Depress Me Too

Much has been discussed recently concerning Abraham Lincoln’s depression, slightly more interesting than the “was he gay” discussion. I think this interests people because it legitimizes depression, a disease that has struggled not to be considered a trend or a stop on hypochondriacs railway. Because depression is so wide spread, and because the symptoms and triggers are so abstract, it is easy to write depression off as nothing more than a medical excuse for self-pity.

Depression has to be a unique disorder because it is so attached to personality and therefore entirely individualized. A good example is the contradictions in the story above — “Clinical depression is characterized by persistent sadness; sleeping too much or too little; reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain.” As a result, the treatments vary from very natural to very synthetic. A great example is two prominent treatment possibilities: mindfulness — solving it through thought patterns — and the vagus nerve stimulator — an implant that shocks nerve ending. Then there are the triggers: If depression is related to a chemical imbalance, then how can an emotional trauma set it off?

But if Lincoln had it... If Lincoln had it in 1860, and had it from emotional triggers, then maybe it’s the real thing. But like homosexuality, depression has always been around. Only the words we use for the discussion are recent.

I’ve heard depression described as a computer glitch already inside the computer. The glitch may never be discovered during the entire life of the computer, but try and run a certain program or open a certain Web site and everything crashes. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone is susceptible, but the severity of stimuli it takes to set it off ranges from person to person. The reason we hear about it more now is A) people know about it, B) people will talk about it, C) we are processing larger amounts of information than ever before. A friend told me once she thought depression was a tool of nature meant to slow people down. I would add speed people up, because inactivity triggers as much depression as over activity.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Don't throw that away

Also from our creative conservation department.

I wrote a story in college about the confiscation room in the campus police station. I asked them what they did with the drugs. They told me they put it in a pile and burned it, which was the same answer the open mic poetry club told me when I asked what they did with their drugs. Hmm.

SuitSat Coughs, Rolls Over

SuitSat had a rough weekend. NASA declared it dead two hours after the International Space Station astronauts set it free. Now, radio enthusiasts are reporting faint signals and the hint of a voice, but it is, apparently, difficult to make out the content of the message. One problem is that SuitSat is spinning, which creates a pulsing signal in and out of reception.

This project excited me for several reasons. Even when I cannot rationalize the spending in the face of domestic (read: Earth) problems, I am drawn to space activity. I’m excited that New Horizons got off in time to slingshot around Jupiter. Anything coming from the International Space Station also has a nice feeling of unity to it.

This project, though, had some special elements on top of that, the first being creative conservation. NASA has been good about reusing items effectively. I’m reminded of that moment in the Apollo 13 affair when the engineers figure out how to fit the rectangular filters into cylindrical slots (by the way, why did they bring the wrong kind on board in the first place?). Making satellites from unusable space suits that will inevitably burn in the atmosphere has to be cheaper than another Sputnik.

Then there was all the attention given to citizen involvement. That I could use the police scanner from work to pick up messages from outer space was exciting. Finding ways to include non-astronauts in the space process will likely be what saves and propels NASA in/to the future. Sending down messages to ham radio enthusiasts is much cheaper and more democratic than sending Lance Bass to the Moon. The site dedicated to tracking the project has already received more than two million hits. There might never be another space event like Apollo 11 to capture the broad imagination, but NASA’s reputation gets better whenever it shows that it cares what regular people think.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A brief explanation before game time

A funnel accepts a large amount of information and organizes it through a small pipe. A bullhorn takes a small amount of information and amplifies it. Most writing on Internet journals tends to act as a bullhorn, where one person shouts for everyone to hear. In that way, this is a very democratic medium and allows a forum to speak for people who were never heard before.

This journal hopes to achieve the opposite: instead of expelling information, it hopes to accept information. It is the world funneled through the mind of one man. It hopes to draw on resources that tend to be logical and concrete — like math, the sciences, engineering and government (left brain) — and pair them with resources that are more freewheeling — like art, culture, people and daily life (right brain). I have trouble grasping the former categories, but they fascinate me, and so I am trying to engage the latter as a tool for understanding.

Sometimes it seems to me the world has become incredibly large and unnecessarily complicated. Every field consists of experts talking to other experts about their expertise, and any novice with only an interest is brushed aside. Try to read through a Terms of Agreement, a scientific survey or a new bill before Congress. They are very frustrating. We’re told these are important, and yet they appear unapproachable. There is not time to shuffle through it all, and so we rely on other people who are paid to go through it for us and present their findings. Often those people end up being writers: journalists who go through the bills, authors who condense the big concepts, critics who think about art and culture and take a position. The trade off is that ideas are changed with every mind they enter, and so while I get to see the wide mouth of the funnel, you only get to see the narrow bottom. Plus, one person got the idea before me and another will get it after you. This subjectivity used to upset me, and it still does, but as I learn to accept it as inevitable, I’ve found the world opening slightly.

This journal will try to explain difficult concepts — difficult for me, at least [For instance, creating a journal. All of these technical terms mean little to me as of yet. I wanted this to be a straight up Web site, and I own www.dailyfunnel.com. One day I will learn how to make it work]. If you read this journal, you are watching me grapple with ideas both abstract and concrete. If you have been wondering about those ideas, or if watching me wonder makes you wonder too, this will hopefully become an enjoyable read. If not, I will likely bore you once and not hear from you again.

I’m aiming for the former, but I need time. Funneling is a lot slower and more deliberate than a bullhorn; it takes a while for all the information to get through that tiny pipe. Ultimately, this journal is working toward something much larger: 1) becoming a way to connect very disparate ideas to hopefully prove that all branches of thought are somehow related, 2) becoming a voice for people who have exciting and important ideas, but not the skills to verbalize those ideas for a mass audience, 3) promoting a new and different writing curriculum in elementary school education to create a more literate youth, and 4) eventually becoming a global writing system and brand available to people of all viewpoints to promote understanding, compassion and moderation in an entertaining forum through all forms of writing (even poetry).

If that sounds high-falutin’ and all over the place, it’s because I’m suffering from the disease I just described: I’m having trouble putting words on what I’m trying to say. This journal is the very start of a plan, though, not the end. In it I hope to define these concepts, and meet people who agree with the structure I’m creating, even if they disagree with the viewpoints I espouse. This won’t be daily to start, but I wasn’t going to launch The Weekly Funnel and then change it if this thing works. Please don’t hesitate to contact me, and please be patient.