Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Shaken to the (multi) core

Catherine Crawford, chief architect for next-generation systems software at IBM Systems Group's Quasar Design Center, has made a bold statement about the future of software; as is to be expected, some sources make it sound a little more sensationally apocalyptic.

This isn't the first time I've brought up the many-core future of the desktop. You may be wondering who will have the expertise to write the software that will take advantage of this massively parallel paradigm. Well, that will be just one skill that I'll be developing while a postdoctoral fellow at a very fine institution.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Let the CHI flow

For the purposes of this post, that's Computer-Human Interaction, not the Chinese concept of life force.

I made my way to PARC again last Thursday to hear a great talk about how the landscape of electronic entertainment is changing thanks to developments in HCI. It really says something about my interests that so many of the topics that T. Blaine covered were already familiar to me. Off the top of my head, these include: Guitar Hero, Karaoke Revolution, the DS, the Wii,
D'CüCKOO, audiopad, and Jeff Han's multi-touch interface. What ties her interests together amongst each other, as well as with mine, is how custom hardware can facilitate musical creation through intuitive human manipulations.

Of all the above, only Karaoke Revolution uses the single most intuitive human tool for sound, the voice. One of the more interesting projects underway in the realm of speech-and-song control of computers was covered in this space earlier; unfortunately, this wonderful creative tool is still not publicly available.

However, an even greater voice-controlled application has just been released. Have you ever heard a song on the radio, but not caught the attribution, only to have that catchy hook running through your head, leaving you wishing that you knew who wrote the song? Thanks to midomi, you need wonder no more! Just sing into your browser and find all the covers of "Fly Me to the Moon", or who's done that "Doo-wah-ditty-ditty-dum-ditty-doo" song. They're still in "invitation only" beta, but not to worry; if you want me to get you past the velvet rope, just let me know in the comments.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Non-orientable garments

Every mathematician worth their salt knows of The Acme Klein Bottle Company, although I'm one of the few I know who has made a purchase there; specifically, a question mark as a wedding gift to the former proprietors of a Seattle restaurant. (Some are more familiar with the proprietor as the narrator of one of the world's first cyber-espionage stories.) The business has diversified since my order five years ago, having extended to include knit wool hats with zero volume. Now absent from the site (although I swear they were there the last time I looked) are matching Möbius band scarves; fortunately, this need is filled by other resources on the web.

A new foray into the realm of one-sided wearables (brought to my attention by the pillar of hipster science) is the Möbius shoe, pictured below. Of course, to make the outfit work, one would need a matching Fortunatus' Purse.

Friday, January 19, 2007


The other day, I took the time to read S. Yegge's latest essay on software, complex systems, and consciousness; the thesis of the work, an idea that Steve has been refining for some time now, is that "the most important principle in all of software design is this: Systems should never reboot." He gives numerous examples of software products that fail to incorporate this principle, and a few that provide a weak, half-hearted attempt at it. He then goes on to explain that given his (quite reasonable) definition of software, the best systems have this idea built into their core:
So my first argument against rebooting is that in nature it doesn't happen. Or, more accurately, when it does happen it's pretty catastrophic. If you don't like the way a person works, you don't kill them, fix their DNA, and then regrow them. If you don't like the way a government works, you don't shut it down, figure out what's wrong, and start it back up again. Why, then, do we almost always develop software that way?

To celebrate turning 30, R. Stevens created a new t-shirt design (which is now available). Imagine my surprise to find this in his official announcement:
We all have pretty much the same personalities we were born with, just earlier versions. Our software never really gets rewritten, it just evolves.

Rich, Steve, allow me to introduce you to each other.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

...should you choose to accept it...

If you've ever been bored while sitting at a computer, you've probably killed a few hours flipping over square tiles, hoping not to upturn a land mine. This polytopal variant pulls the old stand-by out of the plane and pushes it into the world of combinatorial spheres.

I especially like the dramatic "mission failed TRY AGAIN!!" and "mission completion!!" messages that close each level.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Touch you I

If you're reading this, you must have heard Tuesday's big news. Even if you weren't following it on twitter or the web, you found out soon enough, either from a major news outlet or by reading any of the thousands of blogs discussing it.

That number is no exaggeration: as of this writing, technorati lists 83,622 posts, and Google Blog Search returns about 86,006 results from the past three days.

If you've been following this space long enough, you've already seen some aspects of the interface to this device. The "pinch" zoom paradigm looks just like the light box tool that J. Han's lab put together, so you can proudly tell all your friends that you knew about this whole multi-touch UI way before Apple brought it into the mainstream, which suddenly made it so much less cool.

But that gloat leaves you open to one-upmanship, as I just found out that J. Han was not the first to implement such gestural control of a computer. Over at Microsoft Research, A. Wilson had a working demo of TouchLight in late 2004. If anyone knows of an earlier claim to this concept, please let me know; otherwise, cheers to A. Wilson's ingenuity and creative spark!

While proper credit is due the originator of any idea, it is equally important to note the astounding progress each of these iterations accomplished. The product from the Courant Institute took some great HCI ideas and built a robust interface library and scalable hardware around them, inviting software developers to join in the fun. Now, Apple Computer Inc. has managed to pack that technology into less space than a satisfying meal, along with wireless transmitters, a camera, an accelerometer, etc., and to make it all as attractive as we expect Apple products to be.

It is crucial to remember that the well executed embodiment of an idea is itself a creative task, often no less challenging than the development of the original idea.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Oh do I now, Bert? Or should I say "Guntar"?

Ever since I completed my Ph.D., this family of spam has become all the more amusing.

Even if I did, wouldn't I want it from someone who can spell "degree"?

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A better job, more income and a better life can all be yours in less than 2 weeks.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

A perfect cube

For those born in 1979 (and that includes me and a great many of my friends) last year was a big one. We're 27, or 3×3×3, or 33, and it's probably the last time we can count our years in the form nn, although let's hope not the last perfect cube.

Speaking of which, it's so easy to forget how low an odometer can read:

It was a major year for me in a number of other ways as well. About a month after adding three letters to my name, I bought my first new car. It has many more cubes to go–in fact, its first scheduled maintenance isn't until after 463 miles.

But back to the number at hand. Our time spent being 27 is split between the year just past and the year just begun, and as has been the case for the past seven years, our age bears some resemblance to the number at the top of the calendar; just drop the zeros, and there it is. But this year there's another connection, albeit one that is purely numerological and not at all mathematical.

When I took a course in algebra from K. Ribet, he mentioned an algebraist who every year published a list of all the groups with order equal to the year. One of my classmates pointed out that in certain years, this would be a rather short list; for instance, in 1979 only one group qualified. This year isn't as dull as all that, but it is manageable, since 2007=3×3×223. For instance, I know from one of Prof. Ribet's homework assignments (specifically, Problem 28) that all such groups are solvable and have at least one normal Sylow subgroup.

But what I like, even though I know it's nothing but a quirk of our base-10 notation, is the typographical similarity between the prime factorizations of 27 and 2007, 3×3×3 and 3×3×223. That the products differ by two zeros and the factorizations differ by two appearances of the numeral 2 makes the numerological aesthetics all the more appealing. I know it's not math, but it sure is pretty.