I’ve been very put off by this old interview of Paul Simon by Dick Cavett where Simon plays a still-unfinished version of “Still Crazy After All These Years” and launches into a discussion of how the tune might continue, and Cavett goes “I don’t understand any of this, so I’ll just make unfunny wisecracks.” So, it was such a joyful experience to find this video where Askold Buk talks with Hank Marvin for over an hour about how the sound of The Shadows actually is created. I had no idea there were so many parameters to playing an electric guitar.


Veckans ord: örnfil

Här en gosse som bereder sig på att dela ut en örnfil, icke att förväxla med en orre.


Up to new tricks

You may remember the publisher BetaScript who generates thousands of “books”, by simply printing out Wikipedia articles. I had quite forgotten about them when I got an invitation phrased like this:

Dear Prof. kai,
I am Koushina Tulloo from Lambert Academic Publishing. Your work « title » from University would be of interest to an international audience [I should jolly well hope so, since I presented it at an international conference], and that is why I am writing to you.
We know it is not conventional for a publisher to pro-actively reach out to authors, but we are not a conventional publisher.
Here is what it means for you:
- free of charge publishing
- simplified and fast publishing process
- worldwide sales of your work
- no commitments - you and only you remain the copyright holder of your work
- access to eco-friendly Print-on-Demand technology
We are looking for authors in the field you have researched and your work has caught our interest. We are interested to publish it as a printed book.
Let me know how this sounds to you and I can get back to you with a detailed brochure.
signature block with a glamour picture of the dashing Koushina Tulloo

Now, this of course sounds fishier than salmon-filled tuna with garum sauce and anchovy sprinkles, so time to google “Lambert Academic Publishing”, and…ahahahah! does Google deliver. A quite long article by Joseph Stromberg in Slate not only confirms that Lambert Academic Publishing is a racket of the Who’s Who variety, trying to get you to buy lots of copies of your own book to give away, but, lo and behold!, it is in fact a sister company of the aforementioned BetaScript, and a dozen other scam companies, all owned by OmniScriptum. (And quite possibly Ms Tulloo has borrowed her pretty face from somebody else.) In passing it also explained the mystery of the weird cover of the Betascript book I had ran into before – the cover template only has so many clip art pictures as options for cover picture and apparently a container ship was the closest thing to a destroyer escort that could be found.

Well, I guess my [and my half-dozen co-authors’] three-page short paper will not end up being published as a proper book with ISBN number and all, though it would have been a bit funny of course. Since this seemed to appeal to Stromberg as well, I wonder how much of OmniScriptum’s catalogue is driven by authors who think they have seen through it all, but participate anyway as an ironic lark?


Reading foreign languages

While competition is coming from new Chinese companies, Japanese model manufacturers are still among the most appreciated ones in terms of model quality. The English translations of the instructions are not necessarily always to the same high standards, but usually are sufficient for getting the model built. Still, there is obviously more written in Japanese than has been translated, so, while gearing up for building Fine Mold’s Savoia S.21F (i e Porco Rosso’s flying boat), I thought it would be interesting to find out what all the text in Japanese actually said. A little exploration found two tools: NewOCR, an online service to convert images to text, handling multiple languages and alphabets. So that let me scan the text from the instruction sheet into Japanese text, which I of course still couldn’t read. The next step was to use Google Translate. There is a cool feature in Google Translate, that I discovered then, which is that you can actually draw, in this case, Japanese characters in an input window. This let me correct characters that had gotten corrupted in the scanning. Of course, the characters most likely to have been misread are also the most complex to draw. 翼 (wing) appeared quite a few times, and had to be redrawn manually.

Well, so now I should have a text in English that I could read? Well, of course not. As shown by earlier examples, machine translation is an inexact science, even for languages within the same Indo-european family, but translating Japanese into English tends to render nonsense, like: “Rui is distinguished simply referred to as "F-type" In that, but the repair work Whatever You're in which was whether to follow the Detection Ichiru Suppose that you try.” “In such Ime temporary, please enjoy the Italian machine of power Rahul ma one King between War.”

Interestingly enough, names, that should have been the same string of characters in every place, got translated differently in different sentences – sometimes as the correct Italian name, sometimes as whatever Japanese expression matches the Katakana transcription of the name. Presumably this has to do with the algorithms of Google, that sometimes recognise the context and insert the correct name, sometimes don’t realise there should be a name. I had hoped for at least useful translations of the colours, but “power over key” is the rendition of what we know as ”khaki”.

So, still not entirely helpful.


Veckans ord: porlkran

Jag insåg precis att vattenflödet över innergården i Genève kom från en porlkran. Därför blev det annat ljud i källan.


I maded a film

Reading Devaney’s An Introduction to Chaotic Dynamical Systems, Second Edition I found the description of a solenoid (§2.5) quite interesting: It starts out as a torus, but then you repeatedly lengthen it, shrinking the radius, and fold it back on itself, much like you fold a hair tie, but with the difference that the volume is not retained, so that each folded form fits inside the previous one. I thought that it would be nice to make a recursive function to draw a solenoid to arbitrary depth, and then to make a raytraced animation of the solenoid developing. As it were, I couldn’t quite work out the proper recursive step, so the idea has been languishing for a while (like a couple of years or so).

A few weeks ago I decided that I would get a grip on myself and work out the proper function, since it was obviously simple, if nothing else so to make sure I’m not entirely senile. After a couple of nights of scratching sketches on paper I finally managed to work out the proper order of things and started to transfer data to POVRay, my preferred raytracer. And of course, since I fully subscribe to the idea that glass balls are an important feature of raytracing, I would make the solenoid out of virtual glass. It would also spin, so as to bring out the shape better (on the assumption that viewers would not have access to a stereo viewer).

I soon realised that it was inconvenient to run a C program to generate the coordinates of the object and transfer to a POVRay input file by cut-and-paste every time I wanted to tinker with anything. Happily it is possible to program directly in the POVRay scene description language, so I reimplemented the function and could then work more or less interactively in POVRay. Delaney proposes shrinking the radius of the tube by a factor 10 for each folding, but in my opinion that makes it disappear from view too fast, so I used a factor 3 instead.

My original idea was that I’d render each level and fade it out while fading in the next level, but it turned out to be rather complicated as the surface+interior computational model of POVRay doesn’t really have a concept of fading, to achieve this a large number of (non-linear) parameters have to be adjusted in synchrony. I pondered this a bit, but decided that while I might eventually work out how to do the transforms it was probably easier to instead do the fading on the resulting images, rather than the 3D models, so generated images with only a single object in each and then composited them using ImageMagick and a couple of awk scripts.

This looked OK, but I still wasn’t quite happy with the results, there should be more movement in the animation. In the end I rewrote the solenoid code a bit, so that there would be an animated transition where the next level double-coil shrinks and separates out of the previous level. On a whim I added a background texture and was happily surprised by how much this made the glassiness of the tube pop out and made its structure more distinctive. The full length video took almost a week to render, the later parts requiring about an hour per frame, as the object becomes more complex. For no particular reason I rendered the animation at PAL resolution, notionally at 25 frames/second, but that made the motion a bit too fast in my opinion, so I pulled the output framerate down to 10 fps when generating the video (with ffmpeg) from the individual frames rendered by POVRay. That could then be uploaded to YouTube:

If anyone wants the code to play around with, just ask in the comments.


C S Lewis popping up

It was when I was working at BT Labs, that I saw a notice in the (surprisingly good for a large working place) staff canteen which explicated C S Lewis’s Trilemma. To wit, this presupposes that Jesus must have been “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic”, whence one presumably is supposed to reach the conclusion that “Lord” is the only possible alternative. This has of course been criticised by better people than me, but at the time it was a new argument to me. As I mulled it over, I first realised that the options of course aren’t mutually exclusive. I can perfectly well imagine a god who is stark raving bonkers, and lying about it to boot. (Here’s one, for example.)

As I thought about it further, I defined my own quadrilemma, also of mutually non-exclusive alternatives: ”Mythical, Misguided, Misquoted, and/or Misunderstood”. Not that I think it will convince any believer, but I was rather proud of the alliteration, one letter up, and one alternative more. Take that, Lewis!

In other news, Ana Mardoll has, with the aid of her faithful commentariat, over the last few years, been doing close readings of the Narnia books and actually working out the consequences and implications of everything that happens in them. Not only do they find serious inconsistencies in how the world of Narnia supposedly works in terms of geography, time passing, political relations, etc, but also that the theology espoused boils down to “whatever Lewis personally enjoys (which is not particularly consistent either) is ordained by God”. Quelle surprise !

One does not have to require perfect consistency of stories, but as they say, once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it. As it happened, as a child I read the Narnia books in internal order and completely failed to notice that they were supposed to be Christian allegories until I got to The Last Battle, where it was so heavy-handedly presented even I couldn’t miss it. I felt immensely betrayed – I had enjoyed the books for stories of adventure and meeting magical creatures. Realising it was all a trick in order to indoctrinate in a religion I even then had deemed irrelevant was, I imagine, somewhat like finding yourself in the forest with the weird man and no candy forthcoming.


Ominous Latin Chanting

“O Fortuna” is by now about as overused as „Also sprach Zarathustra“ in all kinds of contexts to the extent that I was somewhat surprised to realise that the lyrics actually mean something.


I learn lots of things

Looking for a given book or article in a library brings up a lot of often very useful by-catch and Google searches are no different. I don’t even remember what I was looking for when I suddenly dredged up several decades worth of scanned issues of Моделист-конструктор, an originally Soviet, then Russian, hobby journal. For some (possibly quite good) reason the scans had been stored in DjVu format which required installing a reader, but once that had been done I started browsing the journal with increasing fascination.

For one thing, the subject width was astounding: a single issue could contain articles on how to fold origami frogs, detail drawings of Tu-22M landing gear for the modeller, and instructions on how to build your own all-terrain vehicle.

Even the Soviet era issues contained quite a few electronics construction projects, including radio transmitters and such. I would have assumed there were restrictions for reasons of state security on such, but apparently not. Another issue is how easy if would have been to procure the necessary components, but presumably that was also possible, at least for some.

The careful measurements on the drawings of the ZIL-130 lorry also spoke against the perception of utmost secrecy being upheld in all matters. (The measurements may of course have been distorted.)


To Infinity and Beyond

“A bird flies back and forth across the universe. Once every thousand years, it comes to sharpen its beak on a mountain which is one hundred miles long and one hundred miles high. When that mountain has been ground to sand, one second of eternity will have gone by.”

I’ve always been rather annoyed by this storicle—it plays out as if eternity is just a slowed-down version of…what really? Eternity is that which has no end, so if we were to say that the grinding-down of the mountain took a googol seconds of eternity it would be as true—there would still be exactly as much of eternity left.

And so, in what way is eternity different from the time we normally experience? Arguably we could imagine that in the far future of our expanding universe, it will become so dilute that there is no way even to count time and say that at this (fuzzy) point time has ended, and that our universe has had a finite existence. In this case we would need to posit some other universe which actually exists eternally. Had we this eternal universe we could subtract the lifetime of our universe from it, and there would still be as much left of eternity.

This may be because people really cannot comprehend something infinite, and assume there should still be an end stop even to eternity, just very far away. However, I am reminded of what Stanley Schmidt wrote on the subject once (“Finite cornucopias”, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Feb 1986):

“The concept of infinity is deeply ingrained in the average layman’s mind at a very real, painfully practical level. Infinity is the amount of electricity in the wall socket, the amount of oil in Texas…”

So, by that count as well, the bird mountain story is pointless. Let us now forget it.


Flotsam and jetsam

Some time ago, my mother and I were out walking on a crisp autumn day. A contrail crossed the sky, and my mother, as she always does, pointed it out and said: “Look, a jet fighter!”

Now, people often say stuff that is incorrectly specific, to try to be funny or whatever. (The OBCM, for example, will refer to all birds as “ducks”, to underscore that she’s a city girl and can’t be bothered with the details of non-asphalt-based organisms.) But this time, just to make conversation, I said: “Heh, yeah, but properly speaking it’s a passenger aircraft, clearly going to land at Arlanda.”

My mother was surprised. “It’s an aeroplane?”

I in turn was surprised. “Uh yes, or well, aeroplane exhaust. If you look carefully, you can see the plane itself at the tip.” I gave a brief explanation of how contrails form in the cold air at altitude, and my mother marvelled at this new information. I for my part realised that she had been a child when newly-purchased Vampire jets probably would have been the only aircraft flying high enough to form contrails in the skies of Finland. Presumably her elders would have pointed out the streamers in the sky, excitedly referring to them as “jet fighters” [suihkuhävittäjiä], but not making it clear that a jet fighter was a type of aircraft rather than a strange name for a strange celestial phenomenon, and somehow the misunderstanding had gone uncorrected all this time.

I wonder what misconceptions I have that people think are just me trying to be funny.