Hard Tweets Explained: Polar Keyboard

You are doubtless familiar with ordinary <x, y> coordinates that you would use to plot something on graph paper. That way of plotting thing was developed by René Descartes. So they call them Cartesian coordinates.

But that’s not the only way of plotting things. Another way is to describe the location of a point as a distance from the middle, and the direction to go (typically given as an angle). This system is called Polar coordinates. We traditionally use r as the distance (like radius) and θ as the direction. So instead of <x, y> we use <r, θ>.

Now look at your keyboard. The middle is right between G and H. So lets make that the origin of our polar system. If we start θ as going East at zero degrees, then H might be <1,0°>, J is <2,0°>, K is <3,0°>. We might find Y at <1,80°> or so. Got it?

OK, so what I’ve noticed is that my typos on my phone keyboard all have to do with not going far enough away from the center. I’ve got the right direction θ, but not the right distance r. My r is always too small, as though I multiplied it by a number less than 1.

Hence the r of my typo is some number (k) multiplied by the right r. And that number (k) is less than one.

Homework: plot the duration of each nap you took reading this incredibly boring blog entry, against the time that nap ensued, in polar coordinates.

Slammers With Bill Gates

It was the summer of 1986. I had just finished my freshman year at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), and I needed a job. My parents used their networks and somehow I landed a gig as a Microsoft Summer Intern.

At the time, Microsoft was the dominant operating system company, but they were nowhere in the Office applications space. Word processing, in particular, was dominated by a program called Word Perfect. It was an incredibly hard to use program, because everything you would now expect to be on a menu (bold, line spacing, font selection, whatever) was assigned its own F-key along the top row of the keyboard. You would hold down shift, and alt, and ctrl, in various combinations when you hit these F-keys to get different effects. It was a user interface disaster.

Word 3.0So Microsoft had the novel idea to introduce a Word processor that did away with special keys, and instead had a simple menu system. These were the days before GUIs on PCs, so the menu was a list of words along the bottom of the screen. And each menu would open sub-menus, just like the Word processors you use today. Except the sub-menus were also horizontal. It was actually kind of a mess, but it was better than the F-key disaster of Word Perfect.

The trick was how to convince people to stop using Word Perfect and to use Microsoft Word instead. And that’s where the summer interns came in. We would drive around to computer stores, and teach the employees how to use Word. The theory was that when people came in to buy a word processor, they would probably buy what the salesperson told them to use. So if they salespeople were bought in to this new idea of menus, instead of F-keys, then they would be more likely to sell Word.

So that was the job, but before I could start, I needed to go to Microsoft HQ in Redmond, WA to be trained. After all, I couldn’t teach a program I didn’t know how to use.

They sent me the manual in advance, and I read it, so by the time I got to Redmond, I already knew more about how to use Microsoft Word than the person teaching the course. But that was OK, because there were a lot of lazier students who hadn’t read the manual, so I helped teach.

We spent a couple days doing that. And one night, back at the hotel where they were putting us up, we were instructed to meet in a big room off the lobby at 7pm. It was a nice room – big board room table, floor to ceiling windows with a view of nothing in particular. And sitting at that big table, was a disheveled blond guy rocking in his seat. His name was Bill. You might have heard of him. He was not the richest man in the world back then, but he was doing OK.

The hotel staff brought in a tray of small glasses. And Bill said, “Who wants to do slammers?!”


By 1986 I had tried beer in college, so I figured I could join him. He put his hand over the glass, slammed it on the table, and drank the shot. I followed suit. As did the rest of the interns. None of whom were anywhere near the legal drinking age in Washington state, which was 21.

From there, we climbed into a couple hotel vans and went to downtown Seattle. This was pre-grunge, but the Seattle club scene was absolutely hopping. And UW was about 80% women at the time (I was told), so the people doing most of the hopping in these clubs were primarily girls.

We went into the first place, and Bill handed his credit card to the bartender and said “Run a tab!” To a youngster like me, this was probably the most impressive thing he did all night. Such largesse!

Not Ms. 19

Not Ms. 19

Bill was a terrible dancer. Not even white-guy-at-a-wedding bad. Worse than that. He basically just bounced up and down. And mostly, he bounced up and down next to a particular 19-year-old girl. He was 31 at the time, and looked about 16, so this wasn’t nearly as creepy as you might think.

However, Ms. 19-year-old was not impressed. I remember that she had curly, sandy hair. Low body fat, like a runner. Pretty, but kind of plain. A very kind face. The sort of a woman you might picture running a 40 billion dollar charitable foundation someday. She seemed to be just tolerating Bill’s attention. Looking for, but not finding, an exit strategy.

The night went on, and we went from club to club. Dancing, drinking, and yelling but not hearing. We eventually ended up back at the hotel, where there was a very large bouquet of red long stem roses waiting for Ms. 19. I asked her if she was surprised by the flowers. She shrugged, and said something along the lines of, “He was really into me. But he’s gross.”

Charity Gig 2014

Every year I play a charity gig for the local library. The group is always changing, so this is the first time I’ve ever played with this particular group of guys. We play standards, and there is some dancing. You’ll hear background noise, kind of like a club gig.

I recorded this using the “Voice Memos” app on my phone, with a Blue MIKEY Digital mic (I highly recommend it).

The band this year is myself on Alto Sax, Bob (an engineer I went to college with) on Bass, Peter (runs the local school district music program) on Drums, and Alex (a high school senior (!) who has been accepted to Berkeley next year) on Guitar.

My Funny Valentine

Fly Me To The Moon


As Time Goes By

It Had To Be You

Girl From Ipanema

Paper Moon

Our Love Is Here To Stay

Sweet Georgia Brown

I Could Write A Book

Love For Sale

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

Hard Tweets Explained: Benjamin Button

This is another tweet playing with the “opening line of my life story” tweet meme. In this case, we are describing a line using the function “sine.” That’s the wavy line that goes up and down around the horizontal axis. It starts at zero, goes up to one, goes back down through zero, all the way to negative one, and back up to zero. Then it repeats.

So that’s most of the joke. If you believe in reincarnation, then your life line would repeat. Like a sine wave.

While the sine wave starts at zero and goes up, there is a similar wave called the cosine wave, that starts at one and goes down. If you saw the movie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” then you know the idea is that the main character starts old and gets younger. The cosine starts high and goes down, hence it is like old Ben getting younger as time goes on.

Homework: Go make a tweet about the homophones cosine and cosign. People will think you’re hilarious. (They won’t. They really won’t.)

Camp Dad

I grew up in the Midwest, but I’ve established my roots in New England, because I’m more comfortable here. I like the uppity people, and the good food, and the liberal politics. But I’m not a huge fan of the smells. Autumn in Michigan smelled better than autumn in New England. Same with Spring. And don’t get me started on that assault on the senses they call “Yankee Candle.” The entrance to hell is a Yankee Candle store, I presume. But one of the smells I like least is that of the New England coast.

The mix of fishing industry and seaweed and the rest of the flotsam and jetsam makes for a ripe stew that I’d rather be nowhere near. I’ll take the coast of Northern California or a Caribbean Island any day over the day-old tunafish sandwich smell of Gloucester or Portland.

Now, my wife’s cousin has a house up on an island off the coast of Maine, and he is very generous to share it with his extended family for free. So you can imagine that I get really excited when it’s time to take a family vacation up there. With the cold water, and not-at-all sandy beaches, fat Mainers in Speedos, and tunafish sandwich air.

I’m not joking. I really do get excited. Because I don’t go. The wife and kids go and leave me and the dog to fend for ourselves for a week. And that. Is. Awesome.

I’ll work from home that week, so I can maximize my solitude. The dog gets regular walks, and I get regular cocktails. And dinners out at the bar of my favorite restaurant on the planet. And it is a chance for personal growth. For example, it was during this week that I really threw myself into twitter for the first time. Being married with children is wonderful, but everyone needs a little break from that once in a while.

However, that kind of solitude and tranquility comes at a price. And that price is that after a week, I need to drive up to Maine, trade cars with my wife, and drive home with the kids. Then she gets her vacation. And the kids get Camp Dad!

Camp Dad is a devilishly clever invention I came up with. It achieves so many wonderful goals, it’s really quite remarkable. The kids get an experience to complain about all their lives. It keeps them incredibly busy all day, so they go right to sleep at night. There is absolutely no “I’m bored” to deal with. The kids get to see that, although I am not that sportsy, athletic dad from TV, I actually do know how to do those sportsy, athletic things (which, I hope, frees them to entertain the idea of not just being a cerebral couch potato like their old man). And, when my wife eventually comes home, the kids are so glad to have her back.

Camp Dad, like any good camp, starts with Reveille. At 6am sharp, I take out my Sax, stand in their hallway, and assault their ears. They have 15 minutes to get dressed, and then we head outside for calisthenics. Get the blood pumping. That’s it for being in the house. The rest of the day (except bathroom breaks) will be spent outside, or in a converted horse stable we call “The Cabana.” No electronics. No TV.

The Cabana

The Cabana

I serve cereal in the Cabana, and we then proceed to fill the day with activities. Four-person baseball (pitcher, catcher, hitter, fielder, rotating each play). Croquet. Frisbee. Swimming. Lots and lots of swimming. Badminton. Bocce. Cards. Board games. You name it. Non-stop, continuous family entertainment. Breaks for lunch and dinner that I prepare on the grill. We retire into the Cabana for reading and, eventually, sleeping.

Then the next day, we all wake up early and it starts all over again (except the Reveille is rendered on Harmonica, for the sake of the neighbors).

Two days of this is all the kids can take. So after dinner, I let them go back into the house and settle back into their routine of iThings and TV and awful pop music on the radio.

We’ve done this twice now. The schedule didn’t work out last summer, so we skipped it. And I think my oldest, who will be 12 by this summer, may use creative social imperatives to avoid it if we do manage to do it again this year. Sometimes we’ll do a mini Camp Dad when my wife is away in the summer. It has become part of our family lexicon. Someday, when my kids are home from college for the holidays, they are going to sit around and tell stories about Camp Dad. Horrible, awful, completely untrue stories. I look forward to that.

Hard Tweets Explained: Amplituhedron

This is a pretty rich trove of quantum physics references. Hang on.

Amplituhedron theory is a relatively new development in quantum physics. It is a way of computing various properties of the interactions of particles at the quantum level. You represent the things that might bump into each other using a geometric structure, and then measure its volume to find out what would happen. There is a very readable article about the theory here:

Wired: Scientists Discover a Jewel at the Heart of Quantum Physics

The shape of an amplituhedron is like a jewel, so if there was one in your shoe, it would probably hurt. That’s the first joke. Pretty obvious.

The key thing that amplituhedron theory changes are the notions of locality and unitarity. Locality is the notion that interactions happen between particles that are next to each other. This new theory seems to say that isn’t necessarily always the case.

So there is our second joke. It hurt, but it hurt the foot that was in the other shoe. That would be non-locality of particle interaction.

The other thing that amplituhedron theory changes is unitarity. In quantum physics, particles exist in what they call a “superposition” of states. It isn’t in one state or another. It’s probably in one and probably in the other. The cat in Schrodinger’s box is probably both alive and dead. The probability of each of these states has been assumed to add up to 1. But the amplituhedron changes that rule.

So that’s the third joke. It probably hurt. Maybe it didn’t.

Homework: Go read that Wired article, and then blather on to your friends about non-locality and see how long it takes them to get non-local to where you are standing. It probably won’t take long.

Creative Commons License, Original here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ska-Rock_Steady_on_D_and_Em64.png

My First Paying Gig

My high school experience was probably a little different than yours. I was a “band fag,” which is what pretty much everybody called the kids whose lives revolved around the music program. I played alto sax, and I was pretty good. Not great, but better than everyone else in my little pond.

I also ran a software company, and published educational software which was distributed and sold by big companies you’ve heard of.

But, most of all, I had a lot of sex with my girlfriend. A lot. Like, all the time. Mostly in the car, on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere.

As you can see, I was pretty busy. There were other kids who were having what I now see is a more typical high school experience. They smoked and drank and talked about having sex. They listened to cool bands I’d never heard, and wore provocative T-shirts with words like “Violent Femmes” on them. We band fags called these people burnouts. In retrospect, I should have spent a lot more time with these people, because they were probably having a lot more fun than my peer group.

As it happens, there was a small intersection between these cool kids and my nerds. My friend Rick played Tenor sax in band with me, and he got into a Ska band with these guys. Marty, Mike, and Randy, if memory serves. They played Violent Femmes and English Beat and stuff like that. And this band got a gig. But Rick couldn’t make it, so those guys approached me. Me.

The cool burnouts approached me.

I went to Marty’s house (it was his band), and we went to the basement, and he turned on a cassette of the English Beat playing Mirror in the Bathroom.

And it was clear why they needed me to play this gig with them. Ska music, as it turns out, has horns. Prominent horns. Who knew?

Although I don’t have perfect pitch, I do have what’s called “relative pitch.” That means that once I know the starting note, I can play anything I hear (within reason). I can hear the intervals between notes and reproduce them. So I listened to the tape once, fumbled around to figure out the starting note, and played the sax line from Mirror in the Bathroom.

The guys were floored. Apparently, it took Rick quite a bit longer to figure that out.

So the rehearsal went on like that. They’d play a cassette, I’d figure out the horn line, and we’d play the tune.

That weekend, we all met at the VFW hall, which someone had arranged. It was a party. They charged a cover at the door, and the band would get the cover, and the VFW would get the bar earnings. This was a world with which I was completely unfamiliar. To me, a “party” was when my friends and I would get together in Alicia’s basement, and watch Monty Pyton’s Flying Circus, and play UNO, and eventually turn off the lights, and pair off, and not quite have sex. (And then, after, I’d drive my girlfriend home and we’d have sex in her driveway or something, because, come on, you can’t leave me hanging like that.)

So we played the gig. And it was so cool. At one point this disgusting old bum came up and wrestled the harmonica away from Marty and played the blues. And he was awesome. But I think Marty let him keep the harmonica, because this guy’s mouth was… ew.

I had a great time. And then, at the end of the night, someone came up and told the band that the door cash had been stolen. Gone. No money.

But they passed the hat, and everyone was really drunk, so they got a decent take that way, and gave it to the band.

And then the band gave me the money. All of it. They gave me all of the money.

I didn’t know what to make of that. But my father taught me that when someone is generous with you, the right thing to do is say thank you, quick, before they change their mind. So that’s what I did.

Looking back, I think I now understand why they gave me the money. I’m an amateur musician. I still gig sometimes, but it’s always for free – charity gigs. I play because it’s fun. But sometimes you need someone to fill in at the last minute, and so you call a pro. That person makes his living playing. And so you kind of feel like you need to pay him, even though you aren’t getting paid.

I think it was like that. I was the pro. So they paid me.

I never played another gig with those guys. But the whole experience was really cool, and I’m really glad I had that opportunity. Marty went on to get a couple PhD’s and is an entrepreneur and still plays. And Mike is a music producer in Nashville. And I’m not sure what Randy went on to do, but I’m pretty sure he’s not in jail or anything. So, all in all, being a “burnout” isn’t really that bad after all.

I’m definitely going to encourage my kids to hang out with the burnouts when they get to high school.

Hard Tweets Explained: Nature Boy

This is one of a series of tweets I did experimenting with pseudocode poetry. That is, poetry written in the language we use to define computer programs. You’ve probably heard of programs referred to as “code.” Pseudocode is the same idea, except we aren’t writing in any particular computer language.

When you think about it, pseudocode is a really weird idea. It would be like writing the first draft of your essay in a made-up language, and then translating it to English to polish it up. It isn’t like that, actually. It is exactly that. Computer Scientists are a weird lot.

So anyway, I was thinking it might be fun to try to write poems in pseudocode. I thought the freedom from syntax and language might be liberating. To work through the experiment, I picked a poem that had already been written. It is the lyric to a song called Nature Boy.

The greatest thing
You’ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved In return.

I’m not sure that’s actually true. I think the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is probably the exact location of, and optimal stimulation for, all of your partner’s erogenous zones. But this love thing is probably a close second.

nature_boy ::= this funny equals sign is a pretty common pseudocode way of saying “is defined to be.” So we are defining nature_boy, which you recall was the name of the song.

learn > x ∀ x That upside-down A is the formal logic symbol for “for all values of.” So the right side of this inequality says “x for all values of x.” Which is a silly way to say “everything.” So learn greater than everything. That must make learn very large indeed. Perhaps the greatest learn there is.

→ ∃ love The arrow is the formal logic symbol for implies. The backward E is the formal logic symbol for “there exists.” So this says implies there exists love. Which is a peculiar way of saying “is just to love.”

∩ return(love) The upside-down U is the logic symbol for intersection. Intersection in Boolean logic is also the “and” operation. Finally, we have the return statement of the function. This is what the algorithm should emit to the caller, and of course, what we want to emit is love. So this is my way of expressing “and get loved returned.”

Homework: Go visit delict.us/alfageeek and search for pseudocode. See if you agree that this pseudocode poetry idea was a really bad one. Hey, if all our experiments succeeded, we wouldn’t be doing science, would we?

The Ribbon Jello Story

Ribbon JelloI figured that since I have a blog now, and it’s kind of anonymous, it might be fun to start putting up some of the stories from my life. This is a story I’ve told a thousand times. If you’ve heard it, that means you know me, and I’d like you to go away now. And for God’s sake do not read my twitter. If you don’t understand why, please read this letter.

The Ribbon Jello story starts on July 3, 1999. I was between wives and girlfriends, so as single men are prone to do, I spent a lot of time at my attractive neighbor’s house. I was over there on the day before Independence Day, and she was talking about salmon and peas.

It seems that salmon and peas is one of those mostly-forgotten American traditions, dating back to near the beginning of the republic. Well I didn’t know about that, but I did know our own family tradition for the 4th of July: Ribbon Jello.

We used to have a picnic every year on the 4th, and my aunts and uncles and cousins would come, and we’d swim, and eat, and whatnot. And my Aunt Ginny was responsible for the Ribbon Jello. Well, she was, until one year she called my mother in tears, and declared that she wasn’t going to make the fucking Ribbon Jello any more. Then it became my mother’s job.

Back in the 70s, there were not so many colors of Jello available as there are today. So although the idea was to make a patriotic red, white, and blue creation, what we actually had was red, yellow, and green.We basically celebrated the birth of the USA with an homage to the flag of Bolivia. *shrug*

So after talking to my neighbor, my mission was clear. I needed to make Ribbon Jello for our neighborhood 4th celebration. I hurried home, and called Mom to ask her how it was done. She was, of course, neck deep in the process of making Ribbon Jello herself when I called. But, being a mother of good breeding, she took the time to fill me in.

The first thing I needed was something in which to make the Jello. Traditionally, one uses a 14×9 clear glass pan. That lets you see the layers through the edges, which is super cool. But, being a bachelor, who gave absolutely everything I owned (except my house) to my first wife, I had no such pan. I did have a 14×9 metal pan. So I figured, I could use that instead, then flip the Jello out to serve it. This was my first mistake.

Ribbon Jello is, of course, created in layers. You pour each, let it set up, and then pour the next, and so on. Ideally, you should leave yourself a few days, so each layer is completely solid before you pour scalding hot Jello on top of it. When you don’t have a few days, there are some tricks you can use to speed up the process.

One trick is to dissolve the next layer’s Jello powder in hot water just after you pour the previous layer. In two hours, when the previous layer is set, you add the cold water, mix it up, and pour this layer over the back of a spoon onto the one that just set up. Two hours isn’t enough time for crystallization to start, but it is plenty of time to cool from scalding to just warm, so the lower layer doesn’t dissolve.

So I was using this trick, and got exactly halfway through the Jello layering process, when I noticed that the layer I just poured seemed awfully thin. Indeed, it was only half the correct thickness, because I had forgotten to mix in the cup of cold water before I poured it. So, thinking quickly, I got a cup of cold water, added it to the top of the in-progress Ribbon Jello, and mixed it around with a spoon. It appeared to work. This, however, was my second mistake.

At this point, you may be wondering about what the heck goes into the white layers. Well, when Mom used to make it, that was lemon Jello and vanilla yogurt. Personally, I use Knox unflavored gelatin, dissolved in a cup of boiling water, and added to a 6oz vanilla yogurt. It tastes about the same, and has the distinct advantage of being white.

So I proceeded to lay in the remaining Jello, every two hours, and let the whole thing set up overnight in the fridge.

The next day, about noon, I pulled it out and rubbed the outside of the metal baking pan with a warm washcloth, ran a knife around the outside edge, and flipped it onto a big platter. I lifted the baking pan off cleanly. Yes! This is going to work!

No! This is not going to work!

The Jello immediately started to trade height for width and length. It was making a slow progression from three dimensions to just two. Being quick on my feet, I slammed the baking pan down onto the Jello and stopped its expansion in its tracks. I scraped away the outermost fringe of Jello, which I figured might make a great snack later.

OK, no problem, I can just bring it over like this, and do a big reveal when I get there.

So I headed on over to the neighbor’s, and the picnic table was all set up. Nice plastic checkered table cloth and everything. But no people. I figured they must be inside, so I set my platter carefully at the corner of the table, and lifted the pan. And it held! Whew. So it looked great. Just like I remembered. As it turns out, this was my third mistake.

So I headed up into the house, where everyone was getting wine, and we chatted and hugged and did all that stuff you have to do in the suburbs. We eventually came out and down on the table, there were not one, but two ribbon Jellos! One on the platter where I left it, and the other making a slow, steady march across the table.

It seems the tensile strength of the central layer had been compromised by the water incident. Which, combined with a picnic table that wasn’t quite level, resulted in a sheer force which the Jello structure was unable to withstand. The upper half of the Jello had pulled loose from its moorings, and was making an extremely slow bee-line for the opposite corner of the table.

I handed my wine to my hosts, and dashed down to the table, where I grabbed the platter, and put it in the path of the approaching Jello-animate. I slowly walked the top layers back into place.

We had dessert first.

Hard Tweets Explained: Paradox

There is a very obvious joke in this tweet, but there is also a much more subtle one. The obvious joke is about sex. You can figure that one out on your own.

The subtle joke has to do with the way physicists describe electromagnetic radiation. You know – light, radio waves, that sort of thing. Those are waves, and you can think of them moving through space at a constant speed (the speed of light). Being waves, they bounce up and down. Like a sports bra on a jogger.

The rate at which they bounce up and down (I’m not letting that image go), is called the frequency. Typically described in how many times per second they do it, for which we use the unit Hertz (Hz). A jogger bounces about once per second, so the frequency of that sports bra is 1Hz. AM radio waves, in contrast, bounce up and down thousands of times a second (ouch, that hertz), so we use KHz (K means kilo, which means 1000) to describe them.

Another way to describe the same wave is by how much distance it travels between each up/down cycle. This distance is called the wavelength. The typical stride length of a jogger is 30 inches, so the typical wavelength of our sports bra is 30″. Suppose you had two joggers going exactly the same speed. One has long legs and the other has short legs. Ms Long Legs is going to be bouncing a lot slower than Ms Short Legs.

If the overall speed is constant, as it is with our two joggers (and light and radio waves), a low frequency covers a big distance on each bounce. And a high frequency only covers a short distance on each bounce.

Low frequency -> large wavelength; High frequency -> small wavelength. Mathematicians call this opposite relationship “inversely proportional.” So wavelength is inversely proportional to frequency.

A really low frequency wave will take a long time to reach its next peak. But a high frequency wave will reach its next peak in a short time. The duration of that wavelength, at constant speed, is proportional to the wavelength. And it is therefore also inversely proportional to frequency.

Hence the paradox. Physics tells us that duration is inversely proportional to frequency. But our own experience in the bedroom yields the opposite result.

Further study is clearly warranted.

Homework: For the sake of science, try convincing your partner to increase your frequency and see whether duration also increases. It’s really a win/win. Happy bouncing.