more futurism

The other thing I can't wait for is for carbon nanotube construction to hit the big time. This time I'm thinking about a submarine that's strong enough to take several people to several hundred feet of depth, and light enough to be carried by a blimp.

When it's as simple to build with nanotubes as it is to build with, say, fiberglass, all sorts of impossible things will become less impossible. (like the space elevator)

In fact economical nanotube construction methods would make the whole Zeppelin concept MUCH more approachable. Get on it, Science!

grocery store futurism

We are living in the future. A couple years ago I was puzzled and mildly put off when my local grocery store installed a flat panel TV at every checkout stand. Lately I can see why they did it, the advertising is probably a nice secondary revenue stream for them, etc..

Yesterday I was walking around my local supermarket and I noticed how fragmented it is. There are three places to buy mozzarella cheese. One in the 'normal' cheese section, one in the pre-packaged picnic deli aisle, and one in the 'fancy' cheese section. Now that I think of it, I didn't check the deli, so it's possible there are 4 places.

Large stores like Target and Home Depot, and increasingly supermarkets, are attractive because they have amazing selections, but they are hard to navigate. Store designers are stuck laying out their vast catalog of products in 2 dimensions, generally. (some stores are multi-level, which has plusses and minuses, but doesn't approach the benefits of true 3-dimensionality, since access between floors is restricted to certain points.) So, they try to group products in an intelligent manner, so that you can find similar things together. This can lead to unintuitive arrangements when you group products by usage, and this is the case with mozzarella cheese.

I'm not particularly trying to solve the 2D layout problem. It's a hard problem, and well understood, and I respect the people who work on it. But I think that by adding an index layer on top we can alleviate and almost eliminate the frustration of crossing and re-crossing a vast store in search of a product, which, let me tell you, is the main feature of my experience at most large stores. I got to thinking about this index layer yesterday. Since I spend most of my time in front of a monitor, I naturally expect relevant data to be connected to itself via a web of links and cross links. The supermarket should be cross-referenced.

But we can do better than little paper signs that tell you where else an item is. What if we put little touchscreen kiosks around the store, maybe with multi-lingual voice recognition so you don't have to touch a keyboard, and we put inexpensive (low resolution) wide angle LCD projectors on the ceilings (so that they project on most of the walkable floor in the store), and we hook into the existing security camera network, and tie it all together with some fancy software?*

Well, then you could walk up to a kiosk and say "mozzarella cheese", and it would show you pictures of the matching products, with prices and (optionally?) nutrition information, and you use the touchscreen to pick one.

Then a little animation on the screen tells you to look at your feet. When you do, you notice that there is a blue arrow, starting at the kiosk and pointing off to your left about ten feet. It is labeled with the name of the product you selected**, and as you walk it extends in front of you and erases itself behind you, guiding you along the best route to the exact location of your cheese of choice.

In addition, you will be able to enter your shopping list onto the store website***, either from your cell phone or from your computer at home, and when you get to the store you simply activate the list and follow the computed shortest path to complete your shopping. The system, once the kinks are worked out, will entirely replace asking a clerk where something is. Half the time they don't even know, anyway. Getting lost in a store equipped with the system will become a purely voluntary experience.

Stores will install it because it is incredibly sticky****. Once you start to use this system, you will not want to go back. Try to imagine using the internet without Google, or organizing a rendezvous without cell phones. Therefore once customers get a taste of it, all the major chains will be follow suit. On top of this, it opens up a lot of tie-in potential with advertisement (turning the entire floor into a message space), coupons, and other promotions.

The technology is possible now; all we're waiting for is for prices to drop and for someone to do it and sell it. If I had the money on hand, and if I knew a little bit more about supermarket information systems, I would start a little company to build it and market it to supermarkets and giant chain stores. Probably someone is working on it already. One day you will see this technology, and you will know that you are living in the future.

*I'm sorry, I get excited and my sentences get too long.
**or not, if you don't want everyone to see what medications you're using.
*** and it will automatically suggest and provide (print?) relevant coupons. This is a great way to retain customers (if you go to the trouble of entering your list on, you are not going to shop at Albertsons).
**** in the sense of customer retention.


I got the urge to plant a garden.

On thursday I dug up the planter area in our backyard where a garden had been before. I went out and bought a crapload of seeds and a couple of sprouted guys, and I brought them back.

Today I planted it.

3 varieties of tomato
2 varieties of bell pepper
Summer Squash
Corsican Squash

(I really did mean a crapload.)

So we'll see how it all comes out, but I'm excited. The economics of gardening always appealed to me, and so this is kind of an experiment to see how that bears out in real life. I think I already made a mistake, in that I should have bought about half as many seeds, or fewer, but what can you do.

Also, vegetable and herb gardens play a small but important part in my plans for either the Castle or the Zeppelin, so in starting this I feel that I am taking a small step towards those ideas.

Ask me how it's doing in a few weeks!

natebrand game concept

hey guys, quick game concept for the Burrito Game*.

SO you build your cross-generational burrito franchise in this game, starting with What'sHisName and his donkey, somewhere in Mexico, and moving through cities and across time until your burrito is World Famous.

So that's all fine, it's a traditional casual food service game where you slowly add ingredients and increase complexity.

The key idea I just had is that the game is ALSO a family-raising game. When your shop has accumulated enough success, some customers will fall in love with you. You can then marry one of them, which ends the level. Then you pick one of your children to play for the next level, and which city to send your children to. This requires me to build a generic face engine so that I can model young/old people of both sexes and multiple races, and their offspring, but the result will be a huge awesome family tree that you built yourself, with each node a playable character depicted in portrait style in the setting of their city, and shown with the ingredient that they contributed to the Burrito. (Spelled here with a capital 'B' because I'm talking about the Platonic Burrito, not just some tortilla-wrapped meat. Like how in programming, when class names are capitalized but objects are not.)

It will be your mythic family tree of the Burrito, and it will rock.

Also the portraits will go from Olde Tyme to modern, and clothes fashions and cities will change with the times, right?

OK let's get started.

*Background: I decided to make games for all my shirts so that the shirt logo is an appropriate end game/title page for each game, and then use the games to sell the shirts. No games have yet been made, but I do have a sweet particle system!

unsupported assertions on my part

I think it's interesting that if you are a professional policymaker or pundit, you face approximately the same amount of accountability as anyone else or, arguably, less.

In most fields some mistakes are tolerated. You might get fired for making a particularly bad mistake, but chances are you can go out and get another job at another company in the same industry doing mostly the same thing. Some professions are particularly mistake tolerant, (see: publishing, professional psychic, blogger), and some are relatively mistake-intolerant, such as the medical, legal, and civil engineering industries. In mistake-intolerant fields, you usually have a system of accreditation and an organization that's in charge of enforcing industry standards. If you mess up badly, or if you screw with this organization, you will not be able to practice your profession. The AMA, the Bar Association, etc..

The political world has some aspects of tolerance, and some of intolerance. The media and the electorate are the enforcing institutions for elected officials. Get caught having the wrong sex and your career as a politician is over. Note that the political world's sensitivity to personal scandal is practically unique--in most other professions you can move on with only some minor embarrassment. In addition to the tabloid press, elected officials face elections, which ostensibly hold them responsible for decisions made and punish mistakes made. Losing an election is often career-ending for politicians, BUT policymakers and pundits are not all politicians, and retired politicians can move into this other class of non-elected policy professionals.

There seems to be no broad mechanism in place for holding policymakers or pundits responsible for errors in judgment. There is no professional association to ensure high standards. The press do not make a habit of checking and revealing track records, and there are no elections for these positions. Therefore, without a quality enforcement mechanism, the field of policy making and punditry are mistake tolerant. And that is why the people who made all the mistakes five years ago are still respected, professional pontificators. Wacky, eh?

heck yes.

I had a leaky tire on Saturday (deflated, but not down to the rim.) I took it to the little tire shop down the street from the office. The guy told me it would be ten bucks to fix it.


HECK YES. +1 each for Specialization, Free Markets, Competition, Commodification of Service, and Division of Labor. If I had to patch my own tire, I could have done it, but it would have taken me several hours, some tool and supply purchases, and maybe two attempts. There's just no way I WOULDN'T pay ten dollars for someone else to take care of all of this for me. Maybe if my hobby was repairing tires. But it isn't.

aw, thanks zombie feynman!


Made some ostrich egg omelets over the weekend. They were quite good, and as an added benefit, this picture is now topical.

I really really hope Zombie Feynman becomes a recurring character on XKCD, although I think it's not terribly likely to happen. Still, the idea is so poignant, or maybe pungent, and I think that Ralph is the right guy to pull it off. Please?

I've been working on our new game at work, and it seems to me that I've become strangely aware of my own cognition as I program. I get to thinking about the limits of consciousness and the finite cranial resources that we apply to large problems, as I am working on the problems themselves, which, let me tell you, is a little like trying to run a debugger on your operating system when it's low on RAM, which, let me tell you*, slows things down considerably.

Still, it's interesting stuff, and I've also noticed that my programming style seems to be attempting to make a phase transition. I think I'm moving from writing applications to writing systems. So, from writing game logic to writing game system logic. It's a slow and incomplete transition, and right now I'm in the uncomfortable middle section, but it's interesting. I wonder if, when I grow up (as a systems programmer) I will read specifications instead of guides, and participate in newsgroups and IRC channels. That's what serious programmers do, right?

Truth to tell, I've never been terribly serious about programming. If you knew me in college, I was just not a CS major, and I'm really still not, so I'm developing this whole 'I are serious programmer' thing pretty late for my age. I've always been more of an engineer than a scientist, in that I am much more interested in what I can do than in what one can do. I like makin' stuff. But I find that the more I make stuff, I also like makin' stuff right.

That is another interesting set of concepts, the 'right' way to do things. If we get rid of the moral baggage attached to the word 'right,' we can gin up some metrics like efficiency, maintainability, accuracy, transparency, expressive bandwidth, uniqueness, and scalability. Then, depending on what you want to make, different metrics are important. For instance, when making a product for the commercial market, you want efficiency, expressive bandwidth, and scalability. For the industrial market you want efficiency, maintainability, accuracy, and scalability. Here is a table!


My point is, doing something the right way depends very much on context, but there are definitely right and wrong ways within a given context. Figuring out what the metrics are for your context can often get you half way to a solution, and as an added bonus you'll be doing it right. lol. But in all seriousness, I find this stuff fascinating.

* you called my bluff, I've never tried it. but I can imagine.

guys guys checkitout

So, is available. I am seriously considering snatching it up and using it to document my lifelong rant against poor branding and public signage.

Is this a good idea?

more like In-n-accurately named, amirite?

Man, I love In-N-Out but I just spent over sixteen minutes in their drive through line, at 8:00 on a Thursday. sixteen minutes does not qualify as "in and out."

I'm just sayin.

on optimism

(note: I am a Democrat, and I support Obama.)

Is the Obama optimism justified?
In a word, yes. does basically legalized betting on the outcomes of political processes. The idea is that the market as a whole is more accurate than any individual person, (and more accurate than polling as well,) because money is on the line. So this is a pretty good place to see the consensus view of the race.

I was looking at the numbers and here's where it stands now:

Democratic Nomination:
Obama 72
Clinton 28

General Election:
Obama 48
McCain 38
Clinton 18

(Note, the numbers don't have to add to 100, since these are share prices, but they should be close. (inaccuracies mean inefficiencies))

So, the market seems to see a greater than 60% chance of a Democrat taking the white House, and a roughly 70% chance of Obama taking the Democratic nomination. For comparison, during the 2004 race, Kerry was never trading above Bush for any significant amount of time.

Now, the futures markets are not perfect predictors, but they are a good guide to what the informed conventional wisdom is. For someone like me who gets a lot of his information from secondary or tertiary sources (on purpose! it's filtered!), having a tap on this kind of brutally non-partisan information is pretty valuable. It helps keep me grounded.

Specifically, for this election, there are a lot of factors out there that make me optimistic, but as a scientist (more on this subject later) it's important to me that I have some kind of numerical evidence to back up my anecdote-derived hypotheses. These markets are providing that evidence.

So yes, despite having been burned in the past, I am optimistic this year.