Singularity Magazine August 2010

Singularity Aug 2010 issue

Ok, an announcement first. I asked, you spoke, and I listened. Singularity is now free (I can already hear people rejoicing and crying for joy).

Download the August issue.

In this issue,

Drawing the line
Are you present-focussed or future-facing?

Milky Way and Raspberries
A little milk, a little space. A little fruit, a little taste.

Our cover story:
Vegetarian Continuum
From fruitarians to Hannibal Lecters.

Hebrew notes
Similar alphabet system to Greek and fascinating numbers from the language of the Jews.

New feature

I’ve added an “upcoming events” section. The idea is to list interesting events happening around the world. Hopefully, one of them occurs where you live, and you can experience the fun. Art exhibitions, science fairs, cultural shows and technological displays are all fair game.

One of them is the Buenzli 19, a demoscene party. It’s held in Switzerland from 20 to 22 August. I’ve never been to a demoparty before, so if you’ve been to one, please tell me what it’s like.

If you know any other fun events, please let me know.

Conic Space-Time

I received an email from Parker Emmerson. He’s a mathematician, and he’s solved the innate velocity within the Lorentz transformation. And he’s asked me if I was interested in working on a project with him.

Now, I’m flattered by this. I also want to say I’m not really that smart (I had to look up “Lorentz transformation”…). You, on the other hand, are smarter than me. So here’s the document he sent me: The Geometric Pattern of Perception Theorems. I haven’t done academic math in a while. That’s a lot of equations to digest for me…

So here are the few projects he has in mind for collaboration:

  • Write the paper in Latex for co-author credit while making it look and feel more official by including outside sources about relativity.
  • Figure out why the equation will solve at all. To me, it looks like it shouldn’t solve.
  • Write a computer program using the formulae that has some external application beyond making a graph. For instance, the system of a circle transforming through a cone is similar to complex analysis, and I have already done work connecting the two frameworks. We use complex analysis for video games.
  • What is the relationship to black holes?
  • The algebraic structure of the height of the cone necessitates acceleration. How can we relate this to the acceleration of galaxies?

Just reading through those project descriptions, being a mathematician, a physicist (black holes!), a programmer seems helpful.

If you’re interested, please contact Parker. For security, I’m not listing his email address here, but you can find him at his site (his email’s listed there). Or you can leave a comment here or contact me, and I’ll introduce you to him.

Personally, I think that’s awesome. It’s a pity I’m not that smart. So help Parker if you can. Help science forge a new frontier.

To infinity and beyond!

Micropatronage

I am humbly asking you to be my patron. This will be a long read, so if you want to skip to where the party is, click here. So what’s micropatronage, and how is it different from plain patronage? I’ll explain that in a while, but first I want to share a story with you.

Bread ecstasy

My mom told me that when she was young, she travelled to France. Being frugal, she found she couldn’t afford anything other than bread. The baguettes there were the cheapest food she could find. So she ate that every day while she was in France.

Well, history seemed to have repeated itself. A few days ago, I was doing grocery shopping in the supermarket. Like a man on a mission, I went straight for the kill. My target? A pack of muesli and a giant bottle of fresh milk.

Well, along that unerring route from where I picked up the shopping basket and where my muesli was, was the bakery section. For some reason, I glanced ever so slightly at the rows of loaves of bread and stopped. Hmm. I could check out the bread spread.

As I slipped into the alley of bakery delights, something clicked in my mind. I could eat bread! As a meal! What a novel idea! (I promise to cut down on the exclamation marks) I was ecstatic. Doing some mental calculations, I found that a meal comprising of 2 or 3 slices of bread with some peanut butter or some other spread on it, was cheap! (I’m sorry, that’s the very last exclamation mark, I promise)

I was dancing. There were squeals of delight. I was head banging as was appropriate in a rock concert. I hugged a loaf of bread (it was squishy, and smelt nice). I also scared the living daylights out of the genial grandma beside me.

Ok, I didn’t actually dance. But it happened in my head. The grandma was really there though.

Well, I’m not at the point of stealing bread. Yet. But it would be a sad day if the headlines read

33 year old wrestles McDonald's Happy Meal from 5 year old

Yes, a very sad day indeed. Abraham Maslow (sort of) said it in 1943, Chris Guillebeau said it in 2010,

It’s hard to sit around thinking big thoughts when you’re wondering if you’ll have enough to eat next week.

When you're starving, even bread and peanut butter tastes heavenly. Unless you're allergic to nuts, of course.

Although to be fair, my current lack of freedom is due in some part to a personal choice…

So what’s micropatronage?

Patronage was a word associated most importantly with the Renaissance period. A patron was simply someone who financially supported artists, musicians, writers, philosophers and other persons of scholarly pursuits. Patrons supported the work of the people they admire, typically artists. (There were other types of patrons, such as political ones, but we’ll ignore those in our context)

Patrons then were powerful and extremely wealthy. For example, Lorenzo de’ Medici of the House of Medici, was a patron of Leonardo da Vinci.

And micropatronage? Instead of one powerful patron supporting one artist, think of many less wealthier Medici’s supporting one da Vinci. Yes, I know I’m holding myself up against Leonardo himself, but I also draw now. I’m getting closer to that ideal polymath… Besides, after Seth Godin redefined the word “artist” in his book Linchpin (Amazon affiliate link), I feel I’m up to the task now.

Just to set things straight, no, I will not call you a micropatron. That is like diminishing the value of the support you’re giving me. You’re a patron, regardless of the amount of support. You’re a patron, whether your support is macho or minor, monetary or metaphysical, moral or motivational, mythical or medical, miraculous or mute. You’re my patron. Besides, you can tell your girlfriend (or boyfriend) that you’re a patron. It sounds sexy. It is sexy.

“Honey, I’m home.”
“Hey sweetie, how was your day?”
“It was great. I became a patron.”
“Ooh, that’s sexy. Come here so I can give you some love.”

Or something like that.

Sweet! I'm a patron.

I’m sold. Sign me up.

Really? Uh, for the sake of transparency, let me educate you on the ways of making money online, which is my primary means of support. Actually, that sounds kinda sleazy. I make a living through the Internet. Ok, that sounds better. There are 3 main methods:

  • Advertising
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Your own products and services

Personally, I don’t like advertising (on this blog anyway). It uglifies my blog and intrudes on your attention. You don’t really want to read an article on raster to Cartesian coordinate conversion and half way through that, I ask you if you like a particular brand of cologne, do you? The advertisement will have to be relevant, and my years of writing taught me that is hard for this blog. I’m ok with advertising on my magazine, but I’m skipping ahead about the magazine…

Similarly, product relevance is hard to accomplish here for affiliate marketing. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means you’re selling other people’s products for a commission. The typical rate is 50%, with some Internet marketers offering as high as 75% commission if you successfully sell their products. I write about practically anything under the sun, that doesn’t mean every product is relevant here. (Amazon book recommendations are about the only exception, and only rarely do they fit.)

And I don’t want to write an article talking about a product just so I can make a commission. Even if that article’s well balanced on pros and cons. Even if I disclose beforehand that I get a commission if you buy that product through a link I provide (which has some nifty tracking so that the merchant knows the sale came through me).

The routes of both advertising and affiliate products will subtly influence the way I write my articles. I don’t like that. I want to write articles that you might find interesting and helpful. And if they don’t, hopefully the articles at least made you laugh.

So the final method of making money online making a living through the Internet, which many bloggers are already figuring out, is to sell your own products and services. If I’m going to bombard you with advertisements and product sales pitches, it had better be about my own products and services. In this respect, I consider donations and patronage to be in this category. A donor gives money to you because you sell hope, faith, laughter, or relief from boredom. A patron gives money to you because he supports your work.

What’s the number?

So how much do I need? About US$600 per month. I calculated that as a round number, ignoring fluctuations in US to Singapore dollar conversions (assuming US$1 = S$1.40) and ignoring some miscellaneous expenses, and paring down to survival costs and monthly bills. And almost half of that goes to paying my insurance. Insuring my life and health is slowly killing me. Oh the irony.

A word of advice. If you have a stable job, don’t pile monthly expenses such that if you lose that job, you have difficulty paying for those expenses. Quitting my job might turn out to be the dumbest decision I’ve ever made, but I’m much happier now. We’ll see how it goes…

I’m not asking you to support my work with $600 every month (but it’s so awesome if you do). I’m saying I have a low overhead, and every little bit of support you give goes directly to my survival (other than the small admin fees charged by the payment processor site).

Maybe you find it incredulous that I can survive on US$600 a month. Let me give you an idea of how it works. You might be one of those coffee drinkers who unfailingly visit Starbucks every day. Perhaps you always order a tall latte to go. It might cost you $3.50. That latte you had, after converting to Singapore dollars, is enough to buy me a plate of rice with vegetables and maybe a little bit of meat or egg. I’ll probably even be able to buy a cup of tea (I like teh si siu dai, which is Hokkien for tea and evaporated milk mixed together with less sugar). Your morning drink can buy me dinner.

I have stopped lifting weights. Because lifting weights (and vigorous exercise) raises my already high metabolic rate, and makes me burn energy faster, and makes me eat more to compensate, and up my expenses. There goes my bulging biceps, chiselled chest and daunting deltoids…

My transportation costs are practically zero. I walk. I walk over 3 kilometres a day if I get out of the house. I take the bus only when absolutely necessary (like when it’s raining, or when I have a big bag of groceries). I take the train if the destination is far, and I alight at the nearest train station and then walk.

I’m telling you this because I’m committed to keeping the overhead costs low.

“But you’re not enjoying life”

I’ve gone to bed hungry more than a few times now. I remembered what it’s like to go without satisfying my stomach. (I used to starve to save up money so I could buy video games. ‘Twas long time ago. A story for another time.) It’s not fun.

I walk everywhere. In the drizzling rain or in the bloody murderous hot sun.

Zhai nan

I still try to get out of the house. Otherwise, I’d become a true “zhai nan” (ja-ee nahn). It literally means “house man”. It’s usually used in a derogatory tone, typically describing socially inept males who stay at home whose only form of entertainment is video games or the Internet.

Low social stat

When I go out with my friends (because I still need some kind of social life), I don’t have cake, eat ice cream or even a cup of tea when I’m thirsty. “But you’re not enjoying life.”

The alternative was to go back to a desk-bound job, coding some software that I had no pride in, working with people scared of losing their jobs and clinging to their frozen ideas of what was work like an intravenous drip, not understanding that their soul, their creativity, their life was slowly dripping away nevertheless. Perhaps your job is nothing like that, and you love your job and is happy. Good for you.

What I’m really terrified of, is that I’ll never get a full opportunity to make a positive impact on the world. And so I go hungry sometimes.

My email queries are non-trivial

I’m sure you’ve heard of bloggers who couldn’t answer their emails any more because of the volume. I don’t know the contents of their emails, but I’m pretty sure their replies could be done in a few minutes. I’m not trivialising their problem. Even if a reply takes only 1 minute, at hundreds of emails, you could still spend hours just answering email.

I have a different problem. I have fewer email queries, much fewer. Sometimes the queries come in the form of a comment to an article I wrote. But each of those queries can take me hours to reply. I have to research on the problem, and if there are any solutions already written out there. I have to check if my math is correct. I might have to write a program, and make sure it runs fine. I consolidate the answer into a coherent whole. My email reply is 5 to 10 times longer than the initial email. 5 sentences per email reply is an extremely hard rule to follow.

This is why that quadratic Bézier article was written. Or the 3D cubic version. Or the one on percentage contribution (I had help from Christopher. See below). Or the one on advanced styling in Excel Open XML.

Those were written at the express request for help from some of my readers. Possibly even you. I want to help. It’s just draining on my psyche. And sometimes, I wonder if I’m making an impact at all to better the world.

Even if I had a job and don’t need your patronage, 5 hours per email reply is still too much. The brain cycles and time lost is hard to justify. I want to help. It’s not like I’m helping to pick up an apple that fell out from a person’s bag. It’s not like I’m helping to give directions to a lost traveller (but I suck at giving directions. I’m a road idiot). It’s 5 hours. Unadulterated gratitude can take me only so far for so long.

That said, words of gratitude and feedback and such are still extremely powerful (my blog is known to run on a single “thank you” comment for weeks without needing nourishment).

For anyone who launches a product, who bravely publishes that first book, who records music, who stands up for ideas of any kind — for anyone who performs for an audience without trackable means for people’s happiness — he or she knows the importance of receiving feedback. And a fan letter, invaluable.
– Liz Danzico

You’re actually helping other people

If you become my patron, you’re not just supporting me, but also helping other people then. By keeping me alive, you’re allowing me to come up with coherent, understandable and clear answers that take me 5 hours. By supporting my work, you inspire me to do greater work, which hopefully inspires others to do greater work.

Your patronage will help keep the already free writings on this blog even freer (if there’s such a thing). And speaking of that, I’ve decided to set my magazine free. The next issue of Singularity (August 2010) will be available for free. I’m sure the participants of my survey will be pleased to know that. The main reasons are that more people will benefit from the magazine, and that micropayments don’t really work on the Internet. Here’s a sneak peek at one of the topic’s header graphic:

Vegetarian continuum

My friend Christopher contributed an article for the July 2010 issue. He said, “Vince, I don’t care if no one reads that article. If they want to read it, they have to buy the magazine from you.” (This was why his full article wasn’t in the free preview. He specifically told me to only put it in the paid version.) I’m touched, and really grateful. The magazine was basically a one-man show. Layout, design, photos, images, topic header graphic, articles were all created by me, aside from the cover photo and article contributed by my friends.

When I told Christopher my decision to set the magazine free, I also told him I’d understand if he didn’t want to continue contributing articles. Well, he’s still willing to contribute. But he has a condition. You have to become my patron. He drives a hard bargain…

Christopher wrote 3 books on personal finance. He has strong philosophical grounds and he’s an IT manager. His insights will be useful to you.

Specialists aren’t enough. We also need generalists for our future.

That’s the big idea I’m pushing.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
– Mahatma Gandhi

I am scared to death at the prospect of having to become a polymath. Do you know how hard that is? That many people think it’s a waste of time? That people tell me to just continue programming (and by implication, only programming), because that’s what I’m apparently good at?

I believe that our future needs generalists. Our future won’t survive the fracturing of knowledge into deeper and deeper specialisation without people who can connect the different spheres of information together. How can they, when their tunnel vision had already excluded the impossible outcomes and the possible ones from their field of vision?

So I’m slowly trying to be a polymath, despite the inherent hardships. To show you, to show the world that we need polymaths, I need to become one.

Be the change I wish to see in the world.

That statement scares the heck out of me. Will you support me in that quest, that vision?

How else can you help

Help me spread the word. My definition of the word “patron” isn’t that narrowly defined. I’m giving my help freely. I’m giving the magazine away freely. I ask that you help me tell other people about it. If you know of anyone supportive of my work, ask if they are interested in being a patron of mine.

Awesome is a by-product

You can also sprinkle “Polymath Programmer” or “Singularity magazine” surreptitiously into your daily conversations.

“Sir, do you want a latte?”
“Polymath Programmer”
“What?”
“Yes, I want a latte.”

“Watch where you’re going, numbskull! Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“Bugger off.”
“What did you say?”
“Singularity magazine.”
“Huh?”
“I’m sorry.”

And saying “polymath programmer” is easier than “peter piper picked a pair of pickled peppers”… it trains your pronunciation.

And just in case you’re interested, you can be a patron of Polymath Programmer for US$20 per month.

Subscribe

The amount is automatically deducted from your PayPal account every month, and you can stop the payment at any time from your PayPal account. You can find out more on how to support my work by clicking here. Thanks! (drat, I used another exclamation mark…)

(psst… and remember to slip the words “polymath programmer” or “singularity magazine” into your conversations. Or ask supportive people to be my patrons. You’re an awesome person.)

Query bundling – an interruption handling tip

Ok, I feel really bad about this. Months ago, when I first had the idea of writing a self-help ebook *gasp*, I asked Ben Barden for a tip on how he handles interruptions. He gave one, and I’m ashamed to say it’s been sitting in my todo list for, well, months.

I’m often asked to do something when I’m already busy with something else. One way I deal with this is to request “query bundling” – basically, if someone expects to have a number of queries, it is far better if they collate the tasks and send them to me in one go, than to interrupt me every time they have a question. In some cases, certain requests can be related to others, so it’s actually quicker and easier to do a few of them at once.

– Ben Barden

I can understand this. When I first started working, I had tons of questions. How did this program work? Why are the programs scheduled in this order? When do we tell the users their reports are ready? What, why is that again?

After a while, I had this feeling that I’m interrupting my senior colleague too much. So without prompting, I started bunching questions together, and when I had to ask, I’ll unleash a few of them at one go. I’d also try to wait to ask when he’s not too busy, but that’s kind of subjective. He’s always busy. And not the useless kind of busy either.

Ben Barden is a musician, blogger and PHP developer. Find out more about him at his site www.benbarden.com

Unwrapping flowers

Kyle McDonald and Golan Levin used some magic software on images of some unsuspecting flowers. They sliced a flower from the centre to its petals. Then grabbing the cut ends, they bunched the petals together and then dragged them out like playing an accordion.

Basically, they were doing some polar and Cartesian conversion on the images. I can’t show you their images, but you can go look at them at their article.

But wait a minute, I also realised I did something similar… it involved converting fisheye images

So I copied my own code (I don’t have that conversion code anywhere on my computer but my blog. Oh the weirdness…), and cast my own brand of magic on this unsuspecting jasmine here:
Jasmine
[original image by Thai Jasmine]

And I got this result:
Jasmine unwrapped

I think the unwrapping done by Golan and Kyle looks better.

Window view drawing

Here’s another drawing I did:

Window view pencil drawing
[click here for larger image]

This was one of the practice drawings in the book I’m learning pencil drawing from. As you can see, I’m still shaky on the straight lines. But it gave the drawing a raw kind of feel.

I’m also still learning to judge distances and perspective. The original drawing had more of the house outside the window. When I drew mine, the tree on the right cramped up with the upper right window (of the house opposite from where we are), which also cramped up with the tree stump that’s in the middle of the picture.

The oil spill problem

Everett Bogue gave a long-term solution to the recent oil spill problem. Stop driving. Your car consumes oil for power, and is the very reason for the need to drill oil. No car means less of a need to drill massive amounts of oil.

I say “less of a need” because there’s public transportation. I’m not sure if we can ever get to the point where there’s no reliance on oil at all. But every little bit helps.

I bring this up because recently I wrote about something similar in my magazine (download the free preview for July 2010).

Ever since I started working for myself, I started walking. A lot. Mainly because I was cutting costs. But also because I get to walk among trees, feel the breeze on my skin, and hear the sound of birds chirping. (There’s also the scorching Singapore sun and wicked withering weather, but I’m ignoring them) Public transport became a luxury for me, but I gained other luxuries.

Somewhere further in the article, I gave a generic solution to empowering you as a consumer.

A company exists because you buy their products and services. You stop buying, and they disappear. You have more power than you think. Vote with your money.

Same with oil. The less you need of it, the fewer companies form to extract it, the less of a need to extract large amounts of it, and the less of a need to create machines to handle large amounts of it (and thus creating a large mess if something goes wrong).

There you have it, something to think about over the weekend. What do you think of the matter? I’d also appreciate it if you can find information comparing public and private transportation with statistics and numbers. This will give an indication of the benefits of forgoing cars and other private vehicles to reduce our oil reliance.

3D Bézier curve editor

Timo Suoranta created a 3D Bézier curve editor. As of this writing, the program runs on Windows and requires OpenGL version 3 or later (shaders are involved). Here’s a screenshot:

Bezier curve editor
[click for larger image]

It looks awesome. What, no? Then you have to understand picking. In 2D, any point you click on the screen is exact. The point you click on is the point selected.

In 3D, it’s different. There are an infinite number of planes behind that virtual screen you picked on. Think of looking up at the clouds in the sky. You know the water droplets are scattered sparsely and densely in the sky. You know they are in a 3D space. But you, looking up at the sky, only see one plane, the 2D plane that has the water droplets rendered onto.

In this case, it’s simpler. We are only concerned with the points on the Bézier curve itself. Timo used the closest point to the clicked point on the screen as the chosen point. Basically you “shoot” a ray from the clicked point into the vanishing point in the far distance (far far far distance, as in infinity far). When your ray hits the Bézier curve, that’s the chosen point. You can find out more about the method by searching on the Internet for “3d picking” or something similar.

So how do you edit a point once it’s chosen? Timo solved it by using 3 cones to represent the X, Y and Z axes. Dragging on the cones move the point along the respective direction of the axis. Notice the 3 cones at the right side.

Bezier curve editor with axes
[click for larger image]

I believe most 3D rendering software use something similar to edit points.

Now notice the small details Timo added:

  • The floor is a checker board to illustrate the notion of space
  • The vertical lines drawn from the points on the curve to the checker board to show the spatial relation
  • If you hover over the big blue spheres, the checker board, or the curve itself, they glow pulse-like

Wait, you haven’t downloaded the program? Here’s the link.

Singularity survey result

Survey

When I first launched my magazine, I also asked you to help with a survey. (Begged you, implored you desperately to do my survey more accurately. Wait, did I just say that out loud?) Anyway, in the interests of transparency, I thought I’d share some of the insights I gained. I can’t tell you the exact results, because it’s only a small sample size. So the results are heavily skewed, but I’m going to be objective about it. There were 5 questions in total.

1. What is your gender? (based on the sum total of you physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically and other -allies)

Quite self-explanatory. You think the addendum is irrelevant? I thought so too, until I read about how complicated it could be to respectfully ask a person’s gender. At least I didn’t ask you if you have a Y chromosome.

I thought I’d simplify the conditions, and let you decide whether you feel you’re a male or female. Hey, you could be a hermaphrodite, but generally feel that you’re masculine. If the criteria gets too complicated, throw them out and go with your gut feeling.

Oh yeah, they were all men.

2. What is your age?

I had 5 ranges:

  • below 20 years old
  • between 20 and 30 years old
  • between 30 and 40 years old
  • between 40 and 50 years old
  • more than 50 years

The survey participants were aged between 20 and 50 years old. Ok, so Pokemon is definitely out of the question…

3. At what price should the Singularity micro magazine be priced at?

The answer was a unanimous “free”. Quite expected. I’m charging for the magazine not because I want to wheedle you out of your hard earned money, but because I gotta eat.

“Free” was the first option. The second option was “$0 to $5”. I was wondering if the $0 would trigger something. Technically, free and $0 are the same. But do people respond more to the word “free”, or to a numeric value “$0”? Oh well, only if I placed them as two separate options, with the third as “$1 to $5” will I find out…

4. In which country are you living in now till 1 year in the foreseeable future?

Due to the small sample size, I will not disclose the answer to protect the innocent. Let’s just say they are all different countries. And none of them is Singapore, so yay I love you international readers! (I still love you readers in Singapore. Don’t mind that last sentence)

The question was phrased that way, to take care of travelling and resettling conditions. The point was to understand if it’s useful to do localised articles specific to a country. If I knew where you lived, I could write articles that include examples, events and activities in your country.

5. What do you want to read about in a magazine in the pursuit and application of knowledge? (write as many subjects as you like)

I wanted to know what you’re interested in. The answer surprised me. The consolidated answer is basically “what you write on your blog”. Ohhkkaayyy…

On further analysis, that is correct. The magazine is geared towards promoting polymathy. I write on diverse topics here on the blog (some of them are even interesting). It makes sense. I should’ve asked some other question…

So your wish is my command. I will go source for various fascinating and exciting topics for your reading pleasure.

[image by ragsac]

I do landscape drawing too

For whatever reason, I was seized by the urge to try drawing. I was browsing in a Times bookstore, and I happened on this drawing kit. It consisted of a CD of about an hour of an artist teaching you how to draw. There’s also an instruction book for you to follow along. That was interesting.

But I didn’t buy that. After a couple more visits to the bookstore, I finally searched more on learning artwork. And I found a huge thick book by Barrington Barber, called The Complete Book of Drawing (Amazon affiliate link).

The complete book of drawing by Barrington Barber

After some self debating, I decided to buy that book instead. After flipping through a few pages, I sense I’m going on an awesome adventure. And then I went out to buy some minimal art supplies.

Art supplies

I practised on the drawing exercises. It was tough. I had trouble keeping my eye on the tip of the pencil as I drew. Eventually, I felt I could try imitating some of the tough-looking drawings in the book. And this was my landscape drawing:

Landscape pencil drawing
[click for larger picture]

I think I’m better at landscapes.