Existence Proof

imageThe picture is evidence that bug-free Skype seminars are possible! Well, I suppose it only captured an instant, and not the full hour’s worth of two separate bug-free talks each with their own Q&A, but that is what happened. The back story is that two of our invited speakers, Lara Anderson and James Gray, had flight delays that prevented them from arriving in Santiago on time and so I spent a bit of time (at the suggestion of my co-organizer Wati Taylor, who also could not make the trip) figuring out how we could save the schedule by having them give Skype seminars. (We already had to make a replacement elsewhere in the schedule since another of our speakers was ill and had to cancel his trip.)

Two Skype talks seemed a long shot back on Sunday when Wati had the idea, but after some local legwork on my part it gradually because more likely, and by lunchtime today I had the local staff fully on board with the idea and we tested it all and it worked!

It helps that you can send the whole of your computer screen as the video feed, and so the slides came out nicely (I’d originally planned a more complicated arrangement where we’d have the […] Click to continue reading this post

30 Years…

…but apparently, no black people use Macs. Well, you’d get that impression from Apple’s 30 year celebration video (which I was all excited to watch at first), and from the 30 year timeline on the site (which has one face per timeline). In the video, of course there’s some black people dancing and playing basketball (‘cos, you know, that’s all we can do), but when it comes to images of who’s using the machines and being creative with them… a parade of (often smug) white people and a few asians. Really Apple? Out of 30 people representing the past, present and future of your product that apparently “changed the world”, you can’t find even one black face to pretend to use it for your celebration? And of course, I fall into the trap and link to their site like an idiot for you to look at what I’m talking about. Go for it.


-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Just Jiggle It

Frustratingly, I lost several hours this weekend on a new computer problem, when of course I’d planned to work on several things before turning my attention back to teaching and other matters of the week. I needed to install a new piece of software and strangely my computer’s optical drive could not read the CD-R that it was on. The computer kept reporting a blank disc had meen inserted. I checked on another computer and the disc was fine so the problem had to be with my computer. I tried to get it to recognize an audio CD but that was rejected outright. But what was the problem exactly? Investigation involved taking care to restart, attempt to reset firmware, PRAM, etc., trying to figure out how to run the hardware test (on a late 2008 unibody model macbook pro), etc. The latter involved me discovering that the hardware test software was no longer on the machine (since upgrading to Mountain […] Click to continue reading this post

While Appearing

Well, yesterday evening turned out to be very interesting. I went to two things, my main mission being to get the chance to stand up in front of the groups of students and tell them about the USC Science Film Competition. The first was at the Academy for Polymathic Study (what better set of students to interest in this than the ones signed up to do things in the spirit of polymathy?), during the late afternoon “Polymathic Pizza” series. (I’ve presented in that very series myself, talking about the idea of “Play” in science and how important it is for creativity and discovery.) Happily, my friend and colleague Tara McPherson from the School of Cinematic Arts was presenting, and so after I told the students about the competition, I sat and listened to her presentation, since I had some time before the next thing. It was marvellous, and the students were very engaged. Tara took them through the arc of her academic interests over the years of her career, showing how she morphed from (mostly) traditional humanist to someone who researches and explores the role of all kinds of media in popular culture, helping to explore and create new forms of journal, new ways of presenting data, and studying the impact of media. I recommend looking at the journal Vectors for an example of a journal that is designed to present works that would not work as well in traditional print (e.g., being able to have a scholarly discussion of a piece of video media is helped a lot by being able to show it alongside your argument – not so easy in a print journal), and then head over to Scalar, created by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (which Tara directs) which is collaborating with a number of University presses on various approaches to new platforms for new media in academia. She also mentioned various examples in the scientific side of things with regards using distributed media for things like crowdsourcing important data.

I had to leave before she finished, so did not get to ask her the question on many of your minds: what is the origin of the (playful?) choice of names Vectors and Scalar?

Then I went over the School of Cinematic Arts to meet another friend and Colleague, […] Click to continue reading this post

Lightning in a Bottle

Did you hear yesterday’s Fresh Air? It was very interesting indeed, being, as it was, about a subject that you probably know interests me a lot – electric cars. The guest was Seth Fletcher, and he was talking about electric cars, hybrids, and so forth. Not focusing on far futuristic matters so much as what is possible now (with all the exciting things going on in the market), and where we might go next in terms of the development of the science and technology needed to continue to change our world by moving away from gasoline as our primary energy source for transport. A lot of his focus in on the development of batteries, and he does a good job of explaining […] Click to continue reading this post

Momentus Mingus

So at the end of last week, it was that time. I’d been doing temporary countermeasures over the past month or two to put it off, but it was inevitable. I tried to run Illustrator, the program with which I do my painting for The Project, and while opening, it stopped and complained – I’d run out of hard drive space. Somehow, since what feels like only yesterday, I have filled (well, with 4GB spare) 320 GB of had drive space with…. Well… Who knows what? Lots of little bits of everything, I expect. So after a bit of research, I decided to go wild and get a 750GB 7200 rpm drive from Seagate – new on the market this year, apparently. Usually I wait for new things like this to have their creases ironed out, but it seems that they’re really just gluing two smaller drives together, and their 500GB version of the same thing seems to be thought of as reliable, so I decided what the hey. And this whole series of drives is called the Momentus, so surely that’ll be a good thing too.

This meant a fast trip to the always-fun Fry’s Electronics, in Burbank, about which you’ve maybe read a post from me before. Fast because it closes at 9:00pm and I was leaving the house at 8:30pm, but wanted to get it so I could begin the cloning process (see later) overnight, so as to get back to work on the computer the next day.

The trip was great, as I expected, made even better by the fact that the things I wanted were actually on the shelves – said hard drive (a steal at $99), an enclosure for it to make it USB accessible ($9.99) while I clone my existing drive to it, and some tools ($13.99), since Apple, fresh in their new role as Evil Empire, keep changing the screws on the inside of their electronics to odd sizes and shapes to discourage DIY work, trying to force you to take it into their amusingly called Genius Bar… Happily, people have been making screwdrivers to undo the five round pointed head screws on such models and selling them in kits. I found one. Hurrah! (Turns out that I did not need the one for the pentascrew… it was introduced on a different model than mine. The smaller Phillips head driver was good to have though, and as […] Click to continue reading this post

Robot Realities

Not long ago, I noticed that the cleaning robot was ill. It would start its cleaning cycle, run very fast for some seconds, and then make one of its warning noises and stop. This was a few days before my guests were due to arrive for the holidays, and I’d planned a big session of extra attentive house preparation, involving me putting up curtain rails for some new drapes in the living room, installing various shiny fittings in a spare bathroom, and a few other things like that, while the plucky little robot would run around all the floors and give them a good clean. So I had a dilemma – spend time trying to get it well, or use that time to do the floors myself? A bit of googling revealed that the warning noise was signalling something about a sensor possibly going bad. Did I want to spend the time heading to Fry’s electronics to see they had the sensors? Then digging around inside replacing them, with all the soldering, etc., that would entail? Fun, but time-consuming. After a day or two, I decided to do an investigative poke around the interior of the patient, just in case it might just be a matter of clearing or re-seating the sensor array…You never know.


The innards are delightfully put together! The iRobot people deserve some congratulations for good design. It took little time to take the thing apart, and it is very modular inside, with various components popping out quite nicely. It had a lot of dust in several places, notably. I got out my can of compressed air to blow dust out from various tight corners, and put it all back together after a short while. I got it started again and it seemed to run normally, until I noticed that it was missing a key […] Click to continue reading this post


Ack! It is September already. Somehow the last few days got away from me and I prepped a number of posts, but then they did not make it to the blog. One of them was another followup to the Friday iPad post (see also here). I wanted to show you one of the things I did in class on Wednesday. Recall that I am experimenting with using the iPad with Note Taker HD in class to simply sit with the students and work through solving problems with them on “paper”… a sort of fireside chat, if you will. The first experiment was on Wednesday, and I did it a little slowly at first, but I think it’ll be just great. Bear in mind I’m just scribbling with my finger here… I think I’ll try using the stylus I got the other day for variety. Click for larger versions.

classroom_chat_1 classroom_chat_2
[…] Click to continue reading this post

A Letter For You…

Well, there was a lot of interest in the iPad discussion I started on Friday, with hundreds of people viewing the post, and several interesting comments either put after the post or sent to me in email. Note taking to the device via handwriting seemed to be a major thing that people are keen on, and I admit that it is also something that, as I said in the Friday post, made me see the device firmly as a primary work tool here on out. But some are unsure, perhaps unconvinced. So, I decided to reply to many of the comments by writing a letter, including a diagram of sorts. I did it on screen, while riding the bus home, using the excellent program Note Taker HD that I told you about in the post, mostly in “edit 2″ mode, allowing for compact and relatively neat writing with just my finger. Here it is (just click on an image of a page for a larger view, and be warned that a few full stops (periods) at the end of sentences did not show up so well in the images):

letter_to_readers-2010-08-30-page-1 letter_to_readers-2010-08-30-page-2
[…] Click to continue reading this post

My Office in My Handbag: The iPad as a Serious Work Tool

l-1560-1321-fb0479b6-b1bb-4da3-87f6-d149fe2833c8.jpegOne of the things I’ve been meaning to tell you about is my recent explorations of the capabilities of the iPad. I’m extremely impressed with it, and want to tell you a bit about how I use it in case it might work for you. There is a lot that is being said out there, and lots of yelling and whining about what it is not, and so a lot of people are a bit confused, it seems. I’ve a nice chunk of time here on the bus, heading home from my first day back on campus, just after the end of my first class of semester, where in fact I used the device a lot, and so this is a good time to begin to tell you a bit about it.

Bottom line? The small bag I carry that you can see in the picture to the left contains everything I need for a huge number of day to day work tasks, for the research, teaching, and administrative tasks that are part of the standard Professor gig, and a whole lot more. It is all I carry, even on a longer business trip.

The main complaint that a lot of people had was based on dashed expectations. Lots of us, and I include myself in this camp, wanted Apple to produce something like a tablet computer. A “real” computer. One that you can program and so forth like you might do your laptop or desktop, or at least run a lot of applications that are considered the business of serious computers these days, even if not writing machine code or C++ or FORTRAN…(You know, the stuff of Real Programmers.)

So typically, when the iPad is discussed, people give a list of queries about what they want it to do, and if it does not do those things, it is dismissed as a toy, essentially. End of discussion. You can find lots of shouty discussions about the iPad on the web, with lots of accusations about how Apple let people down, and the phrase “dealbreaker” being tossed around as though its some discussion about dating criteria. Ok, so the iPad might not work for you, but make sure it is really for the right reasons.

The bottom line, I realized after having my own list of disappointments, is that the more useful approach might be to figure out what sort of things it does well, and to not think of it as a failed laptop or tablet, but an opportunity to learn a new workflow […] Click to continue reading this post

The Universe Returns – In 3D!

universe_glamour_shotSo I mentioned recently that we’d been filming for the fifth season of The History Channel’s The Universe, earlier this month and during some of the previous two. Well, I learned the other day to my surprise that the new season starts airing next week!

On Thursday 29th July at 9:00pm (8:00pm central, but check local listings) the first episode will air. It’s a survey of some of the wonderful things in our solar system. You can find a synopsis here.

Now do you remember that I did a post at some point about being filmed in 3D, and […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales From The Industry XXXI – An Extra Dimension

I went off into an extra dimension yesterday. Well, in a manner of speaking. No, this was not anything to do with my string theory work!

I was being filmed in 3D.

3d_cameraThere’s a bit of a 3D revolution going on. There have been a lot of 3D movies out lately. Some are better than others, and a great deal more are to come very soon, as you probably know. Many major filmmakers that you probably regard as “serious” filmmakers have 3D films in the works. There’ll be 3D TV channels appearing soon in the UK and probably elsewhere, and they’ve been selling the TVs already, both there and in the USA (and I imagine, in other places).

There are lots of questions you’ve no doubt asked yourself: Is the technology here to stay? Is it just a gimmick? Is it just a ploy to combat piracy? Is it a new aspect of the visual form that creative filmmakers can genuinely use to enhance the story-telling? Has that happened yet? And so on and so forth…

I’ve been asking myself those questions too. I did not expect, however, to be part of the revolution (if that is what it is) and be filmed in 3D, so soon, for a TV show. My […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Imagine

yossi_govrin_sculptureThe next in the Categorically Not! series the series of events is tomorrow, Sunday 18th April. It is, as usual, held at the Santa Monica Art Studios. It’s a series – started and run by science writer K. C. Cole – of fun and informative conversations deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries between art, science, humanities, and other subjects. I strongly encourage you to come to them if you’re in the area. Here is the website that describes past ones, and upcoming ones. See also the links at the end of the post for some announcements and descriptions (and even video) of previous events. (At the right is an image of a beautiful sculpture by artist Yossi Govrin, who is on this week’s program.)

The theme this month is Imagine. Here’s the description from K. C. Cole: […] Click to continue reading this post

Best in Show

ion2003 (Well, in the Ion Micrograph category, you understand.)

Sometimes extreme geekery is charming. (As you may know, I do not use the word “geek” lightly.) I spotted this on Phil’s Bad Astronomy Blog. You know what shape it is trying to evoke, I presume. Know also that this structure is 8.8 micro meters across, and that the subject was magnified some 5000 times normal size to make the image. I’ve no idea how they […] Click to continue reading this post

Meteorite Men!

meteorite_men Did you watch Meteorite Men last week? If not, you can probably catch a repeat. It is a new series, airing 9pm ET/PT Wednesday nights, on the Science Channel about two guys who search for meteorites. Check your local listings for times. (Photo cheekily snapped from their site. Copyright aerolite meteorites.)

I learned about it from Bob Melisso, my producer/filmmaker friend (and occasional collaborator: see here, here and here) who made the pilot and is the supervising producer for the series. From […] Click to continue reading this post

Lost Lessons

lost_universityI’m sitting here recovering from last night’s event (more later), which, when you clear away the details (and the large amount of left over food, huge number of dirty dishes, glasses, pots, pans, etc.), was all about science, filmmaking and the media. There’s something else that is being discussed a lot recently that is about that too.

It seems to be all over the blogosphere (e.g., here), since apparently Lost is a very popular show, and so I’ll mention it here. You can now enroll in Lost University as part of the DVD/Blueray release of Lost’s Season 5. What you’ll be able to do (it says on their website), is enroll and take courses in Psychology, Foreign Language, Jungle Survival, Philosophy, History, and Physics. The Physics part is all about time travel. Classes are being “taught” by real professors. I mean actual people, not characters. I know this since I’m one of these professors.

Who knew I’d end up being faculty at another university teaching such a popular […] Click to continue reading this post

Testing, Testing

Fascinating. I am testing out a new method of posting to the blog. I replaced my ancient and frustrating ipod (I think enough time has been spent tinkering around in its innards (see e.g. here) and now I realize the hard drive itself is now damaged) and my old Palm Tungsten by one new device, an iPod Touch. It seems to work well, and is my compromise to the iPhone mania – I find the fact that you are forced by AT&T into an expensive data contract for the iPhone a bit objectionable, and I certainly don’t want to pay that much to be connected all the time, and moreover have no wish to be connected all the time, and my current phone is a really good phone that does more of what I want than the iPhone does (my phone has a radio for example – it is free and works whether you have a connection to the web or not – good old-fashioned FM) and I am not really one for getting new devices just for newness’ sake. (I’ve realized to my delight that this solution also means that I get to continue saying that I’m the last person in LA without an iPhone. :) )

Since I needed to replace the other things and since the Touch does have Bluetooth and wireless, this seemed like a good move. I can reliably listen to music again, and It will help with productivity too, I can do some communication on the move […] Click to continue reading this post

40 Years Ago…

moon_landing_630pxWell, it can’t have escaped your attention. I imagine that whatever news sources you use are full of stories about today being the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. (Well, the first by human beings, anyway. :) )

I won’t be writing a long thoughtful piece reflecting on the matter. Right now, I can’t really think of much to say that has not been said. Perhaps it is just because it is too hot here. I’m not sure.

However, I will encourage you to find a quiet moment sometime today, stop, look […] Click to continue reading this post

The Spiritual Life of Plants

cvj sowing seedsGiven all the gardening I’ve been doing over the last week or so (there’s some seed-sowing action going on to the right – more later), it may be fitting to go and sit and participate in the event coming up today. It is another of the College Commons events I’ve been mentioning here.

It’ll be a round table discussion and workshop to kick off a series, and here’s the summary:

“The Spiritual Life of Plants” series, arranged by Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari of French and comparative literature, aims to reunite urgent contemporary conversations around ecology and the built environment with an early modern past — a past in which plants existed both at the limits of being and at the frontier of new forms of knowledge. What might these animated plants have to tell us about the ways in which humans experience, regulate, and are transformed by the non-human beings that surround them? How can we carry these conversations forward into the present and the future?

[…] Click to continue reading this post

From the Earth to the Moon?

bill stone at TED 2007Bill Stone is quite an engaging speaker, it has to be said. I heard him on the BBC World Service, being interviewed about his hopes and plans to change the way we do things in space. It is a spirited case that he makes, where he deliberately invokes the spirit and the words of Sir Ernest Shackleton and other great explorers going off into the unknown. The audio is here. (If you come to this late, search their archive here.)

Then I checked and sure enough there was a TED talk from him last year. See here. You can see him in action as well, although the BBC interview is complementary […] Click to continue reading this post

Light Thoughts

Last night, for one reason or another, I decided on the spur of the moment to head to the beach, in order to wander there with the darkness clinging to me while I faced the bracing wind and cleared my head of many things. Although not quite like walking, for example, the Northumbrian coastline, even this part of the Pacific can be wonderfully restless, rugged, and alive when there are strong storms in the air, as is the case right now in the area.

santa monica led ferris wheel

On my walk, heading Northwest, I saw the Santa Monica Pier in the distance, with its new (as of last Summer) Ferris Wheel sporting some 160000 LEDs (I read this – did not count them) and putting on a light show. It is interesting to look at for a number of reasons. They’ve programmed in a lot of patterns that it cycles through, some of which are nice, but the most interesting thing to me (and not depicted in my snaps) […] Click to continue reading this post

The Chronophage

I’m back home in Los Angeles now, after four days in Cambridge (UK) trying to pay attention to several interesting talks and meetings while being eight hours out of sync with my sleep. It has been interesting, but it is good to be back and getting on with the business of starting the new semester. I gave my first class of the season yesterday (upper division electromagnetism), and it looks to be a good group of students. I expect we’ll have fun! Additionally, two research meetings with graduate students meant for a nicely balanced first day back.

It’s (of course) 5:18am, and so while I sit here, wide awake, I’ll tell you about something I saw earlier in the week. chronophage_corpus_clockWhile wandering around for a bit in Cambridge on Monday, I stumbled across the Corpus Clock and the Chronophage. It’d been mentioned to me about half an hour before by a friend, and I made a mental note to ask about it, but did not realize I’d stumble upon it so easily. Did you hear about it last year? I must confess that all the fuss about it totally passed me by. There’s been a lot of silly stuff said about it, including the usual sensational things about time and so forth, but at the core, the whole thing is quite marvellous. I’ve an old-fashioned streak to me, as you know by now, and so that it is essentially a traditional mechanical clock (despite the presence of LEDs to show the time – they are not controlled electronically, but are on all the time and the mechanical works moves slits to make them appear to go on and off) appeals to me immensely. The whole effect of using modern technology to […] Click to continue reading this post

Red, Yellow, Blue, Green…

red yellow green blue…among other colours.

View of the day from the garden. (Winter. Number x in a limited series of y.) (Click for larger view.) The rains have gone for a while. The sun is back, with clear blue skies to close out the year.

I’m trying to rest. Well, I’m working on various projects at home, mostly. Colours are on my mind a bit in one of these projects, actually. Later today I’m going to be down in the (only slightly mad-scientist) workshop making a portable screen on which to project films.

Projecting onto the wall is good, but I want to make a silver-grey screen with a dark border that will really pop the colours out. Some of this is about not projecting onto […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales From The Industry XXVI – Science and Entertainment Exchange

Well, I probably am not worthy of the press credentials I was carrying around with me on Wednesday, as several days later I had still not done my “report” on the event. Well, here it is.

science  entertainment exchange

I went to a press conference and a symposium that relates directly to the issues I was talking about in my Tuesday post and its comment stream. All the things I was talking about with regards better contact between the science community and the filmmaking community so as to make films (and shows) that better represent science and scientists more accurately through something closer to a collaborative mode were brought up in these meetings and discussions. It was great to see this issue being taken seriously, and a well-meant effort being made. The core of the idea is to set up an office that will coordinate things – acting as a sort of clearing house that will put filmmakers (of all aspects of the process whether screenwriter or director) in touch with willing scientists who can be helpful in various topics. This is the Science and Entertainment Exchange.

A key thing that I have mentioned here many times before is the issue of it being about more than just fact-checking near-completed work. If scientists are involved at […] Click to continue reading this post

Science and the New President

Last week the Guardian did a special podcast about Barack Obama’s science policies, and the challenges that lie ahead for the new administration. It’s actually rather good (at least the parts I’ve heard so far – I’m listening to it in pieces while travelling) and I recommend it. They have lots of guests, many of whom you’ve maybe heard of (Lesley Stone, Martin Rees, Diana Liverman, Chris Mason, P Z Myers, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Barstow), and the issue is explored from several angles, from climate change, through stem cells, to the space program. […] Click to continue reading this post

Goodbye to Correlations and WIRED Science

Over on Correlations, we’re in the process of saying goodbye. The PBS experiment with a genuinely new (for them) and fun science format, WIRED Science, along with its really fantastic online component (with resources for schools, the general public, the blog Correlations, and so forth), is officially over.

I don’t know exactly what went on behind the scenes at the PBS mother ship, but frankly, it seems that they just did not have the guts to try something new at this time, and are returning to their standard stuff. I thought that the show had a lot of good work in it, including several shining portions, and deserved a bit more time to find its feet. It may well have got there, building followers that would have tuned in regularly for years, becoming a sort of US (and science-oriented) version of the UK’s Tomorrow’s World (a BBC show that ran for 38 years and -despite its flaws- is fondly remembered by many generations). Oh well.

The mood at KCET (the local Los Angeles PBS affiliate that was making the show) was […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Loops

The next Categorically Not! is on Sunday April 27th (upcoming). The Categorically Not! series of events that are held at the Santa Monica Art Studios, (with occasional exceptions). It’s a series – started and run by science writer K. C. Cole – of fun and informative conversations deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries between art, science, humanities, and other subjects. I strongly encourage you to come to them if you’re in the area. Here is the website that describes past ones, and upcoming ones. See also the links at the end of the post for some announcements and descriptions (and even video) of previous events.

The theme this month is Loops Here’s the description from K C Cole:

“When you come right down to it, just about everything is loopy: planets, proteins or life stories, things have a way of coming around again, always with a slightly different spin. This month’s Categorically Not! was conceived as a tribute to Douglas Hofstadter’s new book, I am a Strange Loop, which uses […] Click to continue reading this post