Singularity – a micro magazine

Singularity June 2010 issue

I am launching a micro magazine, Singularity. You can buy it for US$1 right here. UPDATE: Singularity is now available free of charge. Download the June issue now. In it, you will read about:

  • Ayn Rand and Objectivism
  • Limitations of choice in a game
  • The lack of control in water colouring
  • Liberal arts education

You can also download a free preview to see if you like it.

Click here to download free preview [Download the full June issue now]

While you’re at it, how about doing a survey for me? Helps me customise the magazine for you.

Click here to take survey Survey closed.

In the past, I’ve launched 2 newsletters before. I stopped writing them because the email text format prevented me from using a lot of design elements, namely typography and images. Sure, there is the HTML email format I could use. But the effort in sending emails with a consistent look took too much effort, and your email system might not even be able to open it.

So when Seth Godin wrote about micro magazines, I liked the concept immediately. A small scale magazine with a few articles in PDF. It’s a file, can be easily shared, allows freedom of design elements, and doesn’t have to be printed (environmentally friendly).

[UPDATE: I’m no longer charging for the magazine.]
I’m also charging for it because, well, I need to eat. And you can buy the inaugural June 2010 issue of Singularity for just US$1. Think of it as a donation to me if you like. Hungry men don’t write well

Singularity currently runs ad-free, but I’m willing to consider sponsorship. Then you can get it for free! Yay! But you’re most welcome to buy my magazine.

Click here to buy Singularity June 2010 issue Download the June issue now.

And if you can spare a couple of minutes of your time, please help me with the survey too. I appreciate your time and attention. Thanks.

Click here to take survey Survey closed.

If you have any questions, comments, or enquiries on Singularity, you may contact me at

If you’re an advertiser looking to sponsor Singularity, please contact me at the same email address:

If you’re a die-hard supporter of Polymath Programmer, but you happen to not have money, fear not. The writing on this blog continues to be free. Tell your friends about the magazine. Tell your friends about the blog. I appreciate your help.

Intelligence or happiness?

In a recent episode of House (a medical drama), there was this patient with an IQ of 178. He deliberately dumbed himself down by regularly dosing himself with cough syrup. Supposedly, there was some medical lash back with the regular dosing, so he countered that with regular doses of alcohol.

I will not discuss whether that’s medically correct or possible. I’m concerned with his intentions. Why did this highly intelligent man, who had at least one book published (as seen in the show), gave lots of scientific revelations (implied from the dialogue and behaviour), dumb himself down? He wanted to be happy.

In particular, he was happy when he did not have to think.

Being intelligent caused his brain to keep working, cranking out thought after thought. If I remember correctly, he had an accident, and was drugged so the doctors could do their work. He became happier when he found he couldn’t think clearly.

He met his wife then, who wasn’t, let’s say, Nobel Prize material. But he’s happy. When he recovered, his intellectual faculties returned, and he began to suffer (emotionally, I guess). He started the cough syrup treatment.

Dr House and his team of diagnosticians eventually tracked the source of his sickness, the cough syrup. There was a scene where the man, with his head clear, was scribbling notes and drawing on his notepad. His wife came over and asked what’s that. He explained, and it was something highly complex and scientific, and was both unintelligible to his wife and me. His wife looked surprised, and shocked. He scrunged his eyebrows, the light gone from his eyes, and told his wife to get him some water. When his wife left the room, he wept. His happiness was gone, again.

In the end, that man had an operation to remove some part of his brain, so that he would stay stupid. I can’t remember the exact medical term.

I told my friends this story. They had mixed reactions. Some believed he’s an idiot. With that kind of intelligence, he could do so much. He could help the world. He could create the next clean energy generator. He could not be so selfish just so he could be happy.

Some of my friends (actually just one) could understand where that man came from. As did I. I’m not being deliberately immodest. I’m just saying that I can understand the loneliness of being the only one out, where no one seem to understand my thoughts and views and revelations.

Is it really selfish of that man to waste his talent? Is it fair to that man to force him out of his happiness?

What would you do, if you had an IQ of 178?

What if digital possessions are free?

A guy using Internet
[image by Joselito Briones]

I’ve been thinking of what I wrote about digital possessions. Commenter Elad Kehat mentioned something about digital possessions being free, therefore ownership of possessions won’t need to be tracked.

This has ramifications. We’re not talking about information that’s in the public domain, and so is freely available to anyone with Internet access. We’re talking about that new ebook, that new song or new movie in digital format, being free. Maybe there’s a period where the creators charge for access, but it’s probably weeks, maybe months (and not years).

What if you could read that latest bestseller thriller right now on your preferred digital device, for free? What if you could listen to any song, old or new, for free? What if you could watch any movie, be it dated or newest blockbuster, without having to pay for it?

It could happen. It could work. I’m saying that society at large might have to change their views on ownership. Because there won’t be any for digital possessions.

The creators will definitely suffer, in the short term if nothing else. That’s where they make their money. But we’re already in that phase. We have self-publishers of ebooks and songs and video. A viable means of still profiting is to cut out the middle man (as much as possible). This also have the effect of focussing on the content and taking advantage of the medium, in this case, digital. As Elad mentioned in his comment, the middle man (publishing houses, record studios, Amazon) wants to

preserve the exclusive property of non-digital content as it becomes digitized

Which is nonsense. Because a child of 12 can reproduce an ebook with copy and paste faster than a publishing house can print a Dan Brown novel. There is no exclusivity. But until society accepts that for digital content and digital ownership, the middle man can still profit from the populace’s perception that ownership is important.

Chris Anderson (who wrote the book “Free”) already wrote much on this. The price of digital content tends to go to zero. I have to admit, it’s a distinct possibility.

So let’s assume that digital content is free. There won’t be the concept of digital possessions, because possessing assumes ownership. If it’s free, do you care if you own it?

If something isn’t free, and you own it, then you care, because you don’t want people to take it unjustly away from you. You want to have control over who can use it, appreciate it, look at it, listen to it, read it, have fun with it.

What if someone steals your free digital possession? Well, you could go get another copy of it. I mean, it’s free. But if it’s free for you, then it’s free for the thief as well. Then there’s no need for theft. And thus, no need for keeping track of ownership.

Recently, I watched a talk given by Merlin Mann. It’s not really related to the topic at hand (still worth watching, if a bit long), but he mentioned something. Tragedy of the commons.

Basically, that concept goes that there is a common piece of property, and if everyone used their fair share, the property can sustain them indefinitely. But if someone selfishly decides to bite off more than his fair share, he gains more. As other people see this selfish behaviour, they see no reason why they have to keep their end of the bargain. And then mayhem ensues. Everyone squeezes as much from the common property as they can. Eventually, the common property is ravaged beyond help. And everyone loses.

The Internet doesn’t seem to have this limit. You need more space for websites, blogs, PDFs, songs, videos, just get a few more servers. Buy some hard disk with more storage capacity. They go by the terabytes now. Digital content won’t run out of space, hence the “common property” won’t be limited. Just install more hard disks and you get more “common property”.

But hard disks and servers are made of physical materials. Maintaining them have a real cost and thus limit. Who’s going to pay for them? Powering them requires energy, and we have a problem, because there’s limited oil and fossil fuels, and the alternative forms of energy still need some time to be viable.

So we have a sociological barrier (ownership), an economic barrier (creators suffering), and a physical barrier (limit to physical materials). It’s an interesting problem to think about, and hopefully, solve. What do you think?

When possessions change from atoms to bits

I’m not a minimalist. I’m not crazy about having tons of stuff around me either.

Sky and shoes

I have 3 pairs of shoes. Ok, 4 because of that sports/running shoes but its front part of the sole has flopped away, so I can’t walk properly in it, and the super glue didn’t work that well, and I’m too lazy to bring it to the cobbler to fix it. I have maybe 20 shirts (T-shirts, polos, button shirts and so on), and maybe half a dozen pants and jeans. Small trinkets and stuff that can probably fit into a small box. Dozens of CDs (yeah, I still have those silver plated discs…) and DVDs. And tons of books. Books are about the only thing that pains me if I have to throw them away. Even if they’re textbooks. Ok, maybe throwing away textbooks aren’t that painful…

But I’m seeing a trend. Possessions that can be digitised are increasingly available in digitised format (I know, it sounds obvious). Particularly CDs, DVDs and books. Why? Because computers and the Internet in general support the 3 main forms of media: text, audio and video. Their “physical” equivalents are books, songs and movies.

With no other variables to consider, this is good for the environment. Books are transformed into digital text. No paper, dyes and other materials used in producing books. CDs and DVDs are transformed into digitised audio and video. Materials used in production of CDs and DVDs are saved.

But there’s a problem.

How do you know who owns what? How can ownership of digital possessions be enforced? Who’s going to enforce it?

Right now, there’s Amazon’s Kindle. You buy digital books from Amazon and the information is kept by Amazon. Amazon knows what books you bought, so that’s enforced by them.

But you can’t pass the books around. You can’t let your friend borrow that business book. You can’t let your child inherit that fantasy story that kept your imagination alive when you were young. You can’t even hand a digital book to a complete stranger just because you want to. The books are yours, but not really yours.

The equivalent for an enforcer of songs possession is iTunes Store. If I understand it correctly, you buy a song, and it’s flagged as bought by you. The song is “owned” by you, but really, you have to access it through iTunes Store. I wouldn’t know, because Singapore hasn’t had the privilege of being noticed by the company in Cupertino that has a name that sounds like the object that fell on Newton’s head which led to the discovery of gravity.

The point is, our possessions used to be kept track by us. As in, yup that book is mine. No, I don’t think that bag is mine. Oh I don’t have a car, so that’s not mine. Yes that’s my computer. See those “VB sucks!” stickers at the side? (I apologise to fans of Visual Basic. I’m just trying to make a point. And no, I don’t have those stickers around my computer.)

When possessions get digitised, the tracking of ownership flits from us, to them. Whoever “them” are, the “them” who control the medium of the possession (or some form of control over the medium).

We’ve already hit this problem with our online identities. User IDs and passwords are the solution with some kind of protection. Then there are too many user IDs and passwords to keep track of. Thus the major players start to tout their logins to be the one ring that rules them all. Facebook in particular is a popular default login mechanism for other online services. But it’s proprietary. And there’s the open equivalent OpenID.

After the protection of online identities, I foresee the need to (seriously) protect our online possessions. What happens to someone when all his books, songs and movies are stored in (hypothetically speaking) one online service? When the digital bits display “No record of John Doe”, where does that place John?

I’m not saying possession digitising is bad. I’m saying who can you trust to keep track of your digital possessions for you? A privately owned company? A public company? The government?

Will an open-sourced, crowd-sourced solution work? Will you trust everyone else to help keep track of your possessions? Can you trust everyone else in the first place? I have some doubts about the wisdom of crowds

I don’t propose to have an answer. But it is a hard problem.

Not all possessions will be digitised, nor can they be. I prefer wearing my shoes. Having my shoes in the computer doesn’t work. Unless I’m entirely digitised… but that’s a different story…

[image by Nicolas Loran]

Reverse engineering quadratic Bézier curves

I wrote an article on cubic Bézier curves almost 3 years ago. And there had been emails and comments sporadically during that period. The latest one was from a lady, so I decided to write something about it (yes, I’m biased).

The recurring (if you count 2 or 3 as recurring) question is about quadratic Bézier curves. I provided a method for calculating the 4 control points of a cubic Bézier curve, given 4 points that the curve has to pass through. The question is, how do you calculate the 3 control points of a quadratic Bézier curve, given 3 points that the curve has to pass through? The 1st and 3rd points are also the end points of the curve.

As with the cubic version, there are infinitely many solutions. The question I posed above missed out a crucial element which would give a unique solution. How far along the curve is the 2nd point? Let’s look at the quadratic Bézier equation first:

B(t) = (1-t)^2 * p0 + 2(1-t)t * p1 + t^2 * p2

where p0, p1 and p2 are the control points, and t in [0,1]

Suppose you have 3 points that the curve has to pass through. The 1st and 3rd points are also the 1st and 3rd control points (substitute t=0 and t=1 into the equation to see why that is so). That leaves the 2nd control point to be calculated. If you didn’t know, the inner control points of a Bézier curve don’t necessarily fall on the curve itself (and usually don’t).

Since you know the 3 points that pass through the curve, and the 1st and 3rd control points are known, let the points be p0, f and p2, where f is the point on the curve when t=u. Stating the value of u is the crucial element for a unique solution. In the case of a quadratic Bézier curve, the value off the top of my head is 1/2. Meaning the 2nd known point is assumed to fall about halfway along the curve. You may have a different opinion based on the problem you’re trying to solve.

So let’s substitute into the equation, shall we? At the 2nd known point f, we have

f = (1-u)^2 * p0 + 2(1-u)u * p1 + u^2 * p2

Rearranging the terms, we have

= [f – (1-u)^2 * p0 – u^2 * p2] / 2(1-u)u
= 1/(2(1-u)u) * f – (1-u)/2u * p0 – u/2(1-u) * p2

Remember that u is determined by you (1/2 is a good value if you have no other information otherwise). p0, f, and p2 are the 3 known points that pass through the curve (f is the point where t=u). So the only unknown is p1, the 2nd control point.

And I can “cancel” the (1-u) and u terms in the simplification because u is strictly between 0 and 1. In particular, u cannot be equal to 0 or 1.

There you have it. A unique solution to finding the control points of a quadratic Bézier curve.

An example

But hey, I’m feeling generous. I’ll do up a solution with real values.

Suppose you have 3 points [1,1], [2,3], [4,2] that pass through a quadratic Bézier curve. The 1st and 3rd points, [1,1] and [4,2] are the 1st and 3rd control points respectively. That leaves calculating the 2nd control point such that the curve pass through [2,3] when t=0.5 (let’s assume [2,3] is halfway along the curve).

Let’s look at the final stage of our 2nd control point calculation

= 1/(2(1-u)u) * f – (1-u)/2u * p0 – u/2(1-u) * p2
= 1/(2*(1-0.5)*0.5) * [2,3] – (1-0.5)/(2*0.5) * [1,1] – (0.5)/(2*(1-0.5)) * [4,2]
= 2 * [2,3] – 0.5 * [1,1] – 0.5 * [4,2]
= [4,6] – [0.5,0.5] – [2,1]
= [1.5,4.5]

So the final control points are [1,1], [1.5,4.5] and [4,2].

Quadratic Bezier curve

Curve tension

But wait, there’s bonus material! The lady also asked about curve tension. I’m not sure if that’s the correct term. Basically, she wanted to know how to skew the 2nd control point towards the 1st or 3rd control points.

This one’s easy. Just adjust your u value. If you assume u=0.2, then the 2nd control point is skewed towards p0, the 1st control point. If you assume u=0.8, then the 2nd control point is skewed towards p2, the 3rd control point.

So to skew towards p0, let u be closer to 0. To skew towards p2, let u be closer to 1.

Remember, u is decided by you, unless the problem you’re solving states otherwise.