Initial confusion

When you are on the phone with an airline company, or any other outfit that requires confirmation codes, sometimes you need to spell out a six letter nonsense word, like DMXRFU or ZYTPSW. There is no great way to do this, so most of us resort to saying things like “D as in Denver, M as in mammoth, …”

But sometimes this doesn’t work as planned. A friend told me recently that she was on the phone with an airline representative who was trying to give helpful hints.

The representative explained how you could choose words that made the process easier. “For example,” she said, “you could say Q as in ‘cucumber’.”

My friend was too polite to correct the nice lady on the phone, but hearing that story got me thinking. What are the various ways that people might screw this up?

So here are some helpful suggestions for how one might sow chaos and confusion, in the course of trying to helpfully spell out the letters of those mysterious six letter codes:

        A as in eight
        C as in sea lion
        E as in Igor
        G as in jeep
        I as in eyeball
        K as in candy
        Q as in cucumber
        S as in ace
        U as in pew
        X as in accent
        Y as in wine
        Z as in peas

Bela Lugosi

This morning I spent a lot of time in my computer graphics class talking about Bela Lugosi. The reason is that I was teaching character animation.

As an example of beautiful character animation, I showed Chernabog, the dark god of Bald Mountain, from the 1940 Disney film Fantasia. That character was animated by the great Bill Tytla.

I had learned that Tytla had based his animation of Chernabog on the movements of Bela Lugosi in his role as Dracula. In that film, Lugosi moves in a very specific and hypnotic way — which you already know if you’ve seen his mesmerizing performance.

It turns out that we can approximate some of that style algorithmically in an animated character. One trick is to use sine functions with progressive offset phases for the movement of the character’s arms, from shoulders down to fingertips.

The lecture went well. I think the students really appreciated the beautiful clip from Fantasia that we watched in class.

But then — just now in fact — I found out that today is Bela Lugosi’s birthday. As I said in another recent post, I would like to think that somehow, in some way that I don’t yet fully understand, the Universe is speaking to me.


A lot of my communication with colleagues is through diagrams. A well made diagram can convey a lot of useful information that is difficult to get across in text.

One of the cool things about diagrams is that you can use them to subtly express things that are hard to say in words. Your choice of font, of color, how you group things or align them, a judicious use of arrows, all of these add to your story.

It’s not just that you use diagrams to show all the parts of whatever you are talking about. You are also using them to show which relationships are really important, and to get across the proper sense of hierarchy and flow.

It’s still amazing to me that in school they don’t teach you how to make good diagrams. Some people manage to pick it up on their own, and it’s a shame that those people need to be largely self-taught.

Why don’t we have proper diagram-creation literacy in our education system? I don’t have a good answer to that question. Do you?

Future social media stream

In general, I find that the younger people are, the more likely they are to be in the habit of scrolling through social media streams. It’s a form of connecting with one’s culture and peers that feels distinctly different from the analogous forms of connection used by earlier generations.

When we all have those mixed reality glasses, I wonder what the future of social media streaming will be like. Will people on the street, the subway, coffee shops, park benches, spend their time staring off into space, tuning out everything around them to connect with their larger culture? And if so, will our current notions of physical connectedness start to break down.

Or will those future notions of physical connectedness merely change, and evolve to become something that we could no longer recognize. Maybe to something even richer than what is possible today, yet as incomprehensible to us as TikTok would be to anyone living a century ago.

Updating history

Now that I have recorded in one place all of what the Wikipedia community considers the significant events in history, the question comes up of how to update the list. I suppose I could scrape all those Wikipedia pages again, but history actually only advances one day at a time.

On some days, new historical events are added, but on most days they are not. So I suppose I could have a manual or automatic daily process of checking to see whether any new events were added for today — the current day of the current year.

If so, I just update that one day in my database and regenerate the list. If not, then there is nothing to do.

But one thing I don’t know is whether Wikipedia ever deletes an historical event. Does the list just keep getting ever longer, or is it ever pruned?

I’m not even sure I would know how to find out.

Reordering Wikipedia history, part 3

It took me a few days of fiddling around with shell scripts and node.js, but I finally managed to wrestle Wikipedia’s syntax to the ground. I now have a chronologically ordered list, all in one place, of every historical event that the Wikipedia community considers to be significant enough to mention.

The list preserves all of the links to the original Wikipedia articles. You can check it out HERE.

Now the real fun begins. Anybody can use what I created as a resource just by viewing source and copying that from their browser.

The question is, how do you go through it, filter it, visualize it, etc., to suit your purposes? Personally, I am interested in creating landscapes of history that I can interact with in VR.

VR provides an opportunity to make a kind of immersive memory palace out of history. There are all sorts of unanswered questions about how best to organize such a memory palace.

But that’s why it’s fun.

That play you know by heart

There are certain movies or plays or TV shows that you end up knowing by heart. For any particular line of dialogue, you already know what they are going to say.

When that happens, you start to see a lot more of the inherent structure that went into the writing. You can see, for example, how a seemingly throwaway line in an earlier scene sets up an entire confrontation or transition in a later scene.

So in a sense there are two distinct ways of experiencing movies or plays or TV shows. One is to come to them with a spirit of surprise and discovery. The other is to approach them with a spirit of analysis.

In the latter case, you can actually learn quite a bit about the art of writing. And hopefully, one day you can take what you’ve learned and create new works that provide lessons for others.

Coarse to fine

I’ve noticed a pattern that persists through everything I do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s teaching, research, drawing a picture or organizing my apartment.

The only effective way to get anything done is to proceed in a “coarse to fine” manner. If you want to be effective, you need to rough things out before you dive into the details.

This might seem reasonable, but it can be hard to do in practice. The reason is that working on those details can be loads of fun.

So there is a temptation to go there right away, because it feels so good. But the problem is that if you start out working on those glorious details, you might very well need get to a point where you need to throw out everything you’ve already done.

Alas, if any given task doesn’t suit your larger project, you might find yourself going in circles. No matter how much fun it is.

Reordering Wikipedia history, part 2

I’ve decided to take seriously this project of reordering Wikipedia history. Mostly it has led me to node.js.

Using node.js, I think I can write a fairly simple program that does most of it for me. Then, once I have the entire history stream in proper chronological order, it will be fun to start using it for various things.

Maybe I will make it available as a resource so that people can try to do their own searches and visualizations over it. Fun for all!

Reordering Wikipedia history

Many mornings I start my day by going to the Wikipedia and learning about what important things happened in this day in history — at least according to the Wikipedia community. Usually I follow at least one link to learn more about some intriguing historical event.

This morning I realized, going through today’s historical events, how it has all been diced up and scrambled to suit the format. From the perspective of history itself, the grouping into days of the year is completely arbitrary.

I am thinking I might write an app that gathers all 366 entries and puts them into proper chronological order. That would allow different kinds of exploration of what happened throughout history — at least according to the Wikipedia community.