A Virtual Sea

Posted in Technology by Arasmus on February 29, 2008

Basically, maglev (magnetic levitation) trains work by switching the magnet in front of a train to one that attracts the train seconds before it reaches that point in the track. As soon as the train reaches that magnet, the next magnet is set to attract the train and the first magnet is set to repel the train. Thus the train is like a rabbit running down the track trying to catch the very attractive magnet just beyond its grasp. The consequence of this tease is that the train floats over the track. I was just checking out Sony’s virtual reality site and watching avatars float around in the demo video (I don’t believe the graphics rendering is that smooth in the live version) on levitating surfboards. It made me think that would be a pretty cool idea in the real world. A limited application of this would be single large room carpeted with maglev magnets. The user would stand on a surfboard. The floor of the room would have islands, places where the surfboard would float but not accelerate, sort of rest-stops if you will. The user would navigate between these islands by using the same sort of manipulations of his posture on the surfboard that surfers currently use today. But whereas for today’s surfers these navigational tweaks are partly reactions to the resistance offered by the ocean, in maglev-surfing similar actions by the users would be initiating actions, understood by a gps/gyroscope combination and communicated to the central computer through the most appropriate wireless communication infrastructure. This input data would tell the computer to organize the magnet array just in front of the surfer so that his board takes him where he wants to go.

The next step is moving from a model where we have one maglev floor and one surfer to a model where we have one maglev floor and many surfers. Obviously this raises the problem of interference – a maglev floor responding to the requests of one surfer may inadvertently take another where he does not want to go and potentially cause some serious injury by doing so. We need to get to the point where the floor is capable of having a unique relationship with each surfboard. I think one potential solution would be if we broke down magnetic attraction by frequency. The reason my radio produces the same sound in my home as the radio station intended is because my radio is tuned to the same frequency. Perhaps the solution would be for the floor to attract the surfboard by using an analogous type of unique magnetic frequency. If effective then this would mean that the second surfer would not be attracted to the same magnets as the first. An alternative solution would be to employ a “wake concept.” This would be an array of magnets such that those designed to attract a single surfer to go in a particular direction are perpetually surrounded by magnets that repell others. Thus when the second surfer would come close to interfering with the first surfer, he would experience a resistance, or wake, equivalent to that felt as you try to surf uphill – the board would gradually decelerate. I like the elegance of this second approach. With this second approach we would ask a central computer to turn a maglev floor into a sea, with certain islands of rest. This sea would have lines (routes analogous to shipping lines that would feel like paths of least resistance) from island to island. The sea would react to the behavior of the surfers and adjust the magnets around each to prevent collision. By adjusting the strength of the magnets you could theoretically mirror the behaviour of the actual sea, perhaps you could even do it in real-time. Sounds like fun.

Perfume, the Story of a Murderer

Posted in Film by Arasmus on February 15, 2008

What I liked about this film Perfume, first and foremost is that it has a good and gripping story. The best example of this is the opening few minutes when the story reaches out and grips you by the throat. I also liked the way it made me think more about the often under-appreciated but potentially profound human sense of smell. The narrative has a traditional 18th/19th century structure, devoid of counterpoint sub-plots and inter-ontological references. Its just a single good story well told. I haven’t read Suskind’s book so I don’t know how true it is to the original novel. Towards the end of the film it embraces the magical realism reminiscent of films such as Like Water For Chocolate.

In The Mood For Love

Posted in Film by Arasmus on February 15, 2008

One of my top ten films of all time, In The Mood For Love is a sensual work directed by Hong Kong film director Wong-Kar-wai, captures and distills the languid quality of elegant beauty. This quality is found throughout the film but two scenes that capture it well are when Maggie Cheung’s character goes to the street to get her dinner (which you can see in the trailer above) and the tentative movement of hands between the two lovers in the taxi. But my favorite scene from the film, which appeals more to the senses than the intellect, is a side-shot taken as rain moves across the stones on a street. Half of the screen is in the rain and the other half is just ahead so we witness the rain’s movement across the dry stones. It has been many years since I first saw that shot and it has always stuck in my mind, perhaps it is because it makes the ordinary extra-ordinary – something that Wong-Kar-wai does time and time again. This perception of the languid tone of this film is supported by the film’s original Chinese title; “Our Glorious Years Have Passed Like Flowers.” This film is the second of a trilogy, the first of which is Days of Being Wild and the third; 2046. The film is set in Hong Kong in 1962. Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) each rent an apartment in the same building on the same day. They are both married but their relationships with their respective spouses are strained. They each confess their suspicions that there spouses are cheating on them. The film then proceeds with the two, through tentative interactions, trying to avoid the same betrayals perpetuated by their spouses. Their reticence holds and so the film has this star-crossed and suspended-potential quality throughout.

Saving in Sleep

Posted in Politics, Technology by Arasmus on February 11, 2008

My biggest indulgence is my computer, and sushi, and foreign travel and . . . eh . . . let me start again. I love my computer. In fact it has become such a part of the way I live that I almost never turn it off. It is one of four – a family if you will – hmmn that sounds a bit weird. When I am not at my computer it keeps purring away and I must confess to feeling a little bit guilty about all that computing capacity just sitting there burning through electricity. So this morning I decided to do some research on the concept of distributed computing. Sounds about as exciting as mackerel and a shovel in a wheelbarrow I know, but bear with me.

Everyone knows that computers are very good at solving problems that require a lot of number-crunching. To take an insultingly easy example, a computer is a really good tool to use to find say the square root of 16? I can tell my computer to solve this problem in a number of ways. One way is to give it a set of instructions (known as a computer program or software). These instructions would tell the computer to take a large collection of numbers and for each number, multiply it by itself until you get 16. When you get the answer – let me know. So the computer starts at the number 1 and of course it very quickly gets to number 4 and discovers that is the correct answer. This cheeky example introduces three important concepts – the problem (what is the square root of 16?), the data (all the numbers that the computer chewed through to get to the correct answer) and the computer program (the instructions that we gave to the computer so it knew what to do with the data). These same three concepts are used to solve more complex problems such as trying to find the cure for a disease. To try and find a cure for AIDS a scientist might ask the computer – what is the chemical or chemical compound that will neutralize or kill the HIV virus? The computer program translates the HIV virus and the millions of chemical compounds into mathematical formulae or models that the computer can understand. The program then tells the computer to keep searching through the chemical compounds until you find a combination that neutralizes the virus. As you can imagine this problem takes a lot longer to solve than finding the square root of 16. In fact, it can take years. Given that somewhere between 2.5 and 3.3 million people die each year from AIDS – these are very expensive years – more powerful computers could literally save nations.
This is where the idea of distributed computing comes in. Once again, let’s take our simple problem. Imagine if, when we were trying to figure out the square root of 16, we had two computers instead of one. What would have been the fastest way to solve the problem? Well, we know that the answer has to be less than 5 – because 5 multiplied by 5 is 25 which is greater than 16. So if we told one computer to start at number 1 and go up and we told the second computer to start at 5 and go down – then we could answer our problem in half the time. In fact we could answer the problem in less than half the time because the computer that started at 5 and went down would find the answer as soon as it tested the number 4. Distributed computing starts with this idea and takes a very complex problem, breaks it into sections, and gives a section to each of many computers. These computers are connected to each other through the internet. As soon as one computer has completed its part of the problem it sends its results back to the main computer and asks for the next piece of the puzzle to solve. Because these computers are connected by the internet they can be located anywhere on earth – indeed, and here is the exciting part, it could be your computer on your desk at home. Suddenly, a team of scientists with a limited budget and a very important problem to solve has access to millions of home computers with which to solve it.

This idea has had a massive impact. For example, it would have taken 40 years for the team of scientists at Malaria Control to complete the calculations that were necessary for them to understand how malaria behaves and spreads. But when thousands of people all around the world volunteered the use of their idle computers (at night and when they were away from their desks) the time required shrank to a few months. Because scientists get this information earlier they can produce cures faster. Bottom line: people who would have died from the disease now live. Obviously the whole idea makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t cost me anything. I don’t have to go anywhere and its pretty cool to be able to solve these important problems. I didn’t sign up earlier because I thought it would be complicated and annoying to set up. Well, the reason I am writing this is to tell you that its not difficult at all, in fact it was a hell of a lot easier than installing Windows Media Player.

If you would like to participate in one of these projects (it will take you less than 5 minutes) the first thing that you have to do is to download the necessary software. This software tells your computer to connect through the internet with the research project and ask for a piece of the problem to solve. A team at the U.S. Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, made software that does just this – it’s called BOINC and you can download it for free at this website. Once you download the software, double click on the icon to install it on your computer. Once the software opens it will ask you what project you would like your computer to work on. There are a whole range of projects that you can choose, ranging from researching drugs to cure diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and AIDS to projects focused on studying climate change and the origins of our universe. I picked two projects; the Malaria Control project and the World Computing Grid which specializes in trying to find cures for dengue fever and AIDS. My computer first checked with Malaria Control to see if they needed any help and since they had no projects to work on today it checked with the World Computing Grid. There it got to work on finding a cure for dengue fever. My computer did slow down when the program was running but the program comes with pause and resume buttons. When I clicked pause my computer ran at normal speed. So now when I know I am going to leave my computer for a while I just press the resume button and my computer goes back to automatically saving lives.

Yes We Can

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on February 8, 2008

Don’t think that I don’t know. Know how you look at me with your withering eyes. I see you, cynical and old. You sit smug and cold in your own conclusions – that things have always been the same – that we can never change. But I say to you that we have already changed and grown better, we have done it time and time again. I have already seen in my short life how we have changed. I have seen the Berlin Wall fall in the face of flowers and millions breathe free. I have seen apartheid in South Africa wither before the flame of democracy. I have seen the birth of the internet and the rise of a global community of ideas and thoughts. I have seen my own nation rise up from poverty and post-colonialism to prosperity and self-determination. And yet you say that we will never change. You say that things will always be the same and hope is the luxury and folly of youth. And if you are right – what does that mean for me? Am I to become dry and barren like you? Does your disappointment keep you warm? I don’t like you man – you are too old in your cowardly suit. I don’t want to spend my short life inside that suit. I believe that there are times in history when we take another step. I believe that history is full of those steps. I saw Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl reach across a history of dead millions, a century of dead years, shake hands and build something better. I saw it man. I am a child of that community. They put that crap behind them and I was born in the very freedom that they could barely imagine. That was a step. Are they better men than me? No man is better than me. If anyone, anywhere was so courageous as to rise beyond his today and envision a better tomorrow then I can do at least that. I choose to hope. I choose to dream. I choose to believe because I find no joy in the comfort of cowards. And remember this – that I know you. I know you because you are me. And I know that your cynicism is not who you really are. I know how you drape yourself in philosophy, afraid to be left standing alone with just a hope to clothe your naked love. But now, maybe I have a home-spun truth for you – we will all someday stand alone, we will all someday stand naked, we will all someday see the dying of the light and realize that those seconds are our last upon this earth. And what then? What will your final thoughts be? What if? How will you stand that finity mocking all that you could have done? What would it have been like if, back then, if I had chosen to believe? Could I have done some good? And between your final heart-beats you will hear your own voice whisper back to you old man. Yes. Yes you could have. But your time is gone now. And your worthless corpse goes back to nature – another of her disappointing brood. So knowing you and knowing me, I choose differently. I choose to be a fool. And then? And then you and I will probably keep talking old man. And you will no doubt keep whispering in my ear and I am sure that there will be times when I will listen to you. But some days, like this day, I will smell hope and change in the air and know that she is the mother of all good things. And I mean to make a child with her man, an ideal, a hope, a dream. And that child will hold my hand as I pass, so that in the end, only you will die alone. Maybe in the end, only you will die.