Sunday, March 25, 2007

What are We Eating?

I'm all for applying science and technology to as many areas of life as we can, but I think we can go too far when we don't really study or consider the possible ramifications of our actions. Combine that with a generally uneducated or lethargic public, and scary things can happen.

Specifically, I think we're going too far when we put butane in our chicken nuggets, as McDonald's is doing. Do we really feel confident that McDonald's has a good grasp of what the chemicals they use can do to us? Or, do they care very much compared to how much they care about food preservation? Oh, and their nuggets are 56% corn.

Watching the food preservation experiements that Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me did was eye-opening. Here's a link to a similar experiment.

I've read Fast Food Nation. Now it may be time to read The Omnivore's Dilemma.

A Good Use for Game Consoles

If you're not too worried about your PS3 overheating, you can consider donating your spare cycles to humanity by running Folding@home. Since the PS3 client has been released, it has topped the list of contributors by TeraFlops, according to this article.

Folding@home is a project that allows researchers to run simulations involving protein folding. The goal is to better understand diseases such as Alzheimer's and cancer. By allowing researchers to run specially written code components on their computers via the Folding@home clients, a large number of people can each give a fairly small amount of CPU time to the project to create a large pool of CPU resources in aggregate. Think: distributed supercomputer.

By the way, there are clients for a variety of platforms, including versions that run as your screensaver. [Download Link]

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pecha Kucha

I had to post at least once while sitting in a SXSW talk, so here it is...

Can Pecha Kucha be a valuable format for condensed information transfer? I'm slowly processing Edward Tufte's work, and I buy the idea that we do harm by excessive filtering of information to make it palatable to our audience. But for certain topics, environments, and audiences, it makes a lot of sense to condense material.

Pecha Kucha is a style of presentation in which you present 20 slides for 20 seconds each. Transitions are timed, which forces the presenter to make quick and steady progress. The total presentation time comes out at 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Thinking about it reminds me of Dick Hardt's legendary Identity 2.0 presentation.

The Wikipedia article mentions the value for business applications, an area that hits close to home:
This is primarily a device to help ... force presenters to be more focused in their message, allow them to flow uninterrupted, and ultimately to avoid the "death by powerpoint" syndrome, of sitting through long and often tedious powerpoint presentations.

It could be a digestible format for some of the BarCamp presentations.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Interface Gripe #3 - PHP Error Messages

I'm learning PHP right now for work, and it's not the most fun thing in the world after using Ruby On Rails. C'est la vie.

However, error messages like this don't help much:

Parse error: syntax error, unexpected T_SL in /usr/local/apache2/htdocs/proj/include/file.php on line 703

That's supposed to tell me that there's probably an extra space after my declaration of a tag for a heredoc:

$foo = <<<END_FOO[ space ]

The T_SL stands for the Token Shift-Left operator. At least it's not too hard to search for these messages.

I know that it's possible that this error could arise due to a condition unrelated to heredocs. However, I'm a big advocate of providing extra support for the common case. If you want to take this to an extreme, you can do a study on the various causes of an error that might produce a given message. Then you provide extra context or help text for the most common case(s). I know there's a (DWIM, QWAN, TMTOWTDI, DRY)-style acronym out there somewhere for this principle, but it escapes me at the moment.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Amen Break

Here's a short discussion of the history of the Amen Break -- the 6 second drum break that, via sampling, contributed to much of the hip hop and electronic music that we have today. Snippets of songs by NWA, Mantronix, Squarepusher, and Perry Farrell are heard, among others. Remixes of this break's pattern show up in music by one of my favorites, Aphex Twin. Copyright issues are discussed in the video as well.

The video seems pretty useless - why do I care to watch a record play for most of 18 minutes, even if they custom pressed it? I know, I need to slow down and get in touch with my inner tortoise.