Monday Jan 22, 2007

Mind Precedes Matter

Is the mind an emergent property of the physical universe, as we normally suppose, or is it the other way around? I think the trend in physics now to describe everything in terms of information, along with recent ideas about the holographic nature of the universe, suggest the latter. Mind precedes matter.

A computer program can be understood either as a meaningful process unfolding over time, or as lines of programming code, or as stepwise interactions of the components of a theoretical machine. Ultimately, however, it's expressable as a string of ones and zeros. Perhaps our universe is also expressible in many different ways, but at the most basic level as a purely mathematical form. Such a form "exists" in the same sense that Pascal's triangle exists; as a conceptual possibility.

A potentially infinite number of such mathematical forms are possible. For each one of these mathematical forms, any number of ways of expressing them are possible. The possibility of consciousness selects whichever one of these gives rise to actual consciousness. In other words, we see galaxies and quantum mechanics because that's a method of expressing a mathematical possibility that coincides with an opportunity for consciousness to experience that expression. In other words, at the intersection of these two possibility continuums lies what we call reality.

Wednesday Jan 10, 2007

Achieving Precise Control on a Trackpad

Hitting pixel-sized targets with a trackpad is a tedious chore, especially in Photoshop where it seems you have to do it every other move. Sure, your sweaty, corrugated fingertip can get you within a certain range, but trying to home in right on top of a single pixel becomes a battle against frictional physics and your own lack of motor skills.

Some devices, like microscopes and high-end radio tuners, have coarse- and fine-adjustment knobs, which let you get into range, then zero in, respectively. I found a simple technique that acts like a fine-adjustment for any trackpad. In any case it works on my Macbook Pro's trackpad.

The Fingertip Roll

Here's the trick: instead of trying to nudge the pointer onto the target by dragging your grubby digit over the surface of the pad, allow the weight of your hand to anchor the fingertip down on one spot. Then, by changing the yaw and pitch of your hand, roll the fingertip in the direction you want the mouse to go. With about four seconds of practice, you'll find that it gives you fine-grained, 360° control over a range of about five to ten pixels.

If you need really good mouse control, nothing replaces an external mouse. But inevitably you'll find yourself in a situation where you're stuck with the trackpad. This technique has been really helpful for me, and it's easy to get the hang of. Enjoy!

Sunday Jan 07, 2007

Making an effort to understand

This is a corollary to my last post. You can't tell people anything, but what about yourself? Can people tell \*you\* anything? Do you catch on when strange new ideas come along?

Say someone is blabbing at you about some keen new concept. It's obvious they've got a wild hair about it. Do you: a) glaze over and think about sandwiches? b) reflexively contradict whatever they say, as a defense mechanism? c) nod vigorously while memorizing the list of words they're using that seem the most important, so that you can seem smart too? d) get over yourself, and make an effort to comprehend, even if it means astonishing the other person by firing back questions?

The problem is that, especially in technology, so many ideas are zapping around that we develop a hull. We see the world through slits in the armor, and ideas ping off it like small-arms fire against M1 Abrams battle tanks. This has the benefit of allowing us to not go insane, but has the side effect of making it unlikely to catch on to the rare \*good\* idea until somebody else implements it.

I think everybody owes it to themselves--not to the people spouting new ideas, but to themselves--to catch on to new ideas. It takes effort. It means balancing skepticism with eagerness. It means not just the ability, for example, to say the phrase "web two point oh," but to understand which 5% of that concept is is interesting and useful, and which 95% is BS. If you can do that, you are helping yourself, not the person explaining it to you.

Wednesday Jan 03, 2007

You can't tell people anything?

I almost cried when I read this. Okay, I didn't almost cry, but I was 11% of the way toward crying. Had there been tears, they would have been those bittersweet kind that come when you realize the world is more complex and crazy than you're capable of dealing with, and that you should just let that burden slide off your back and sink into the swamp. Or something.

A Hopeful Vision

Here's the scenario: you look at the world around you and you see so much that's wrong. But the solutions are simple, elegant, and staring you in the face. If idea X and idea Y were implemented, things would improve. Nay, the world would open up like a flower and utopia would descend on us all. All you need to do is implement X and Y.

The Harsh Reality

Unfortunately, there's the minor detail of other people. They have to get on board with things. Okay, so you just explain your idea. Hmm, they seem hesitant, even a little defensive. That's weird. So you write up a bunch of proposals and examples and exhortations. Perhaps you even chide a little. Pain ensues. Years of pain. Then you realize, after your spirit has been broken and the fires of your creativity have all but gone out, that people don't get it. And by "it" I mean whatever you're trying to get them to understand. People heart-wrenchingly, bone-headedly, refuse to get it. Nay, they dig their hooves into the dirt and resist, at all costs, getting it. It's all explained much better here: You can't tell people anything.

The upshot is that a good talker, that guy who can "sell the idea," can coax people, by sheer force of personality, to play along. When the idea begins to unfold, then people start getting it. Unfortunately, I'm not the most charismatic person on the planet, so I'm often relegated to the role of hoping charismatic people have good ideas.

Wednesday Dec 20, 2006

I've Been Tagged

I've been tagged by Jennifer (update: and now Droo). Looks like we both grew up in South Dakota! Here are five things you probably didn't know about me.

  1. I almost died once. I used to hunt when I was young. It was the culture I was born into. One day, we were out early. It was 6am on a cold, Kansas morning. It was the crisp, glittering kind of cold. Our dog was so excited about hunting that the -20° temperature and a foot of snow didn't bother him at all. He was like a nuclear furnace—he never stopped outputting heat, and the snow actually steamed off his back. So much motion and energy. We were moving through some underbrush when I managed to bag a pheasant. The dog and I converged on the pheasant at the same time, and tug-of-war ensued. For about sixty seconds, I wrestled with this dog in the dense, chest-high brush. Branches were poking everywhere. All the while I had a loaded twelve-guage semi-automatic shotgun leaning up against my midsection, the muzzle pointed toward my heart, not on safety. Dumbass. Dumbass, dumbass, dumbass. DUMB. ASS. It would've hollowed me out. As soon as I realized I let the bird go and put the gun on safety. Needless to say, the experience shocked me, and does to this day. I'm keenly aware of gun safety. And I no longer hunt.

  2. As a child I was half Huck Finn and half pasty-faced nerd. I spent countless days tromping through the junkyards and back-woods of Ft. Pierre and Winner, South Dakota. We climbed around on railroad bridges, built forts out of weeds by the riverbank, collected rusty old junk, stepped on nails and had to get tetanus shots, played with air-rifles, lit things on fire, and shot bottle-rockets at each other. The other half of my time was spent building Lego spacecraft, pouring over science and space books at the library, playing games on my Grandpa's Commodore 64, and trying to get things to explode using household chemicals like vinegar and baking soda. In fact, trying to blow things up was a recurring theme of my preadolescence. It's a wonder that I find myself whole and intact today.

  3. Of the middle column of US states, I haven't lived in North Dakota or Oklahoma. The others I've lived in for at least six years each.

  4. Of the various types of tasks you can do in the broad field of web design and development, I enjoy server-side programming the most. Circumstance of late, however, have lead me to be doing mostly client-side programming. I enjoy client-side, too, but server-side programming is actually both. You write a program that writes a program. How cool is that?

  5. When I first started using the World Wide Web in the nineties, it didn't immediately occur to me that there was a distinction between the browser and the website. It was all just Yahoo! to me. "How do I open Yahoo!?" Yahoo! was a program where all the web pages lived. Later, working at Sun, a colleague of mine related a funny story. He was building websites back when people were still keeping track of all domain names that existed by using post-it notes on their cube walls. He would get calls from friends who were having trouble with unrelated websites. It was the Web, after all, and wasn't he the guy in charge of it? They didn't understand that he only controlled one single site, and that other people at other companies owned other sites. It was hard for people to wrap their minds around the web as an open, abstract space of information that wasn't hierarchically controlled.

Well, there you go. I'm not going to tag five more people, because I believe this particular meme has hit the second elbow common in exponential curves that occur in natural systems.

Tuesday Dec 19, 2006

Where's the Calendar?

Most Roller blogs have a calendar that allows visitors to explore the blog's past posts by date. This one doesn't. I thought I'd try a stripped-down approach to blog information architecture.

What I've provided in place of a calendar is a four-layer approach, and I think that it should allow people to find what they're looking for almost all of the time. First, there's a list of recent posts in the sidebar, listing the thirty ten most recent items. If that fails, there are the category tabs, so that visitors can browse posts by category. If that fails, there's a link to an "Archives" page, where the last three hundred posts are listed. That, combined with most browsers' find in page feature, is a pretty good way to find things. If that fails, the visitor is instructed to use the search feature.

Not very fancy, and stripped down to the bare bones, I know, but honestly what else does a blog need? I think there are some nice-to-haves associated with a calendar, but nothing most visitors couldn't live without. If you think I've missed any good reasons for having a calendar, I'd love to hear about it.


My name is Greg Reimer and I'm a web technologist for the Sun.COM web design team.


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