Day 102: Ceti Alpha Five

With radios in our cars, Christine, Shannon, Tanja and I hit the road, on the way to the Playa. It’s about five hundred miles, and it’s slow going, but we’ve got radio chatter on our side.

::Everyone here?::
::::Here, we’re right behind you::::

We’ve got three vehicles, and one of them is pulling a trailer. And we drive as it gets dark.


…and drive and drive. And I learn some things about Burning Man.

::::So what about critters?::::
::Nothing lives there::
::::Mice? Beetles? Scorpions? Mosquitos?::::
::Nothing lives there. It’s like Mars, but with more dust. If you see a tumbleweed, it’ll be a major event::
::See dry scrub by the road? That’s the Amazon jungle compared to where we’re headed::

…and drive and drive…

::::How are the stars?::::
::In camp there’s too much light, but you can ride out into the desert, past all of the lights. Then they’re great::
::::I think I’m going to sleep outside, under the stars. No tent::::
::You’ll, ah, well okay. It’s up to you. Remember that there’s dust::
::::Right, I got that. Dust is okay::::

…and drive…

::::Everybody awake?::::
::Yep, we’re good::
(pause)          :::Yeah, I’m here:::
::Okay, time to stop for gas and coffee::

…and pick up supplies…


We’ve left the highway, and are on a dark, winding road in the middle of nowhere.

I’m wondering, what happens when you take 30,000 people, and put them in an environment where:

  • There’s no commerce. No one buying or selling anything.
  • There’s no contact with the outside world. No phone, almost no internet.
  • Everyone’s a visitor, no one lives there. Not even plants and animals.
  • The environment is harsh and serious.
  • There are no rules about clothing at all.
  • There’s fire and alcohol and drugs.

Do people turn evil? When do they wake up? Why do they go to sleep? Sleep… sleep sounds nice. NO! HEY! I’m awake. I’m awake.

It’s easy to spot other Burning Man vehicles. Sometimes it’s the bikes, or overburdened rear suspension. Other times it’s the elephants and eyeball-chickens painted on the side.


It’s still dark when traffic gets really slow. R e a l l y   s l o w, stop. S l o w stop.

It looks like the last scene from Field of Dreams. Hundreds of cars, all slowly headed the same place.

People are starting to crank up their music, and some get out of their cars and ride bikes along with the traffic. They’re ready to be there.

I notice it’s getting light in the East.


It’s strange to be in a never-ending line of cars as it gets light. I turn up my own radio, playing Long Line of Cars by Cake.


As we get closer I notice the vehicles are really interesting. There are all sorts of things attached to them.

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When I get to the security check, I’ve been driving for about eleven hours, and it’s real daylight. The guy looks in my car.

“Been here before?”
“What’s this?”
“What… oh it’s a robot.”
“Goodonya! Where’d you get that?”
“Made it this week.”
“Fuck me, welcome to the Playa robot maker! Is this video camera registered?”
“That’s a telescope.”
“Best answer all morning! Go on then.”


At the gate, there’s a “playa-virgin” ceremony to go through which involves contact with dust (I chose to walk on my hands through it) and ringing a big bell. I shouted an exclamation from Cabin Boy. If you’ve seen it, you know which one.

Now I’m inside the temporary place they call Black Rock City.

We don’t have a space pre-registered, but Christine turns on her charm, and sweet-talks us into being able to share someone else’s spot in an excellent location, right in the middle of everything. It’s so handy to have a cute woman in the group.

It’s a nice morning, but it’s going to get hot, so the first task is to build the sun-shelter. It’s a lot of work, but we’re pretty fast.


The ground is hard and flat, and the dust covering it looks and smells just like tan gym chalk.

We haven’t got a ladder, but that’s not a problem.

We take time to anchor the structure really well, because it’s a little windy. Better to be safe about it.

Once it’s up and stable, I have got to go exploring. I grab some water, hop on my bike, and vanish.


I don’t bring my camera with me, for two reasons:

  • The dust is in everything.
  • It’s already clear to me that this is a place where if you’re seeing something through a camera, you’re missing it.

I ride for miles and miles, and after a while every oddity starts to seem sensible and normal. The outfits are excellent. Right away, I see…

  • flamboyant glittering things with giant wings and metal teeth
  • viking helmets and capes of green fur
  • very sheer skirts which start at the waist, and end just below the waist

…and right away I’m glad I brought my hat. It’ll help me fit in.

Note: Don’t worry, people will doubtless post pictures some of the things I’m describing. Search for Burning Man 2008 in a few days, and you’ll see them.

I ride out into the desert, toward the Man (an 80-foot-tall structure which will be burned in a few days). There are dust devils out here. Pretty big ones. When they hit you, I have to close your eyes and mouth, and hold my breath.

Riding my bike as fast as I can through a really big dust devil, I discover that there are (WHAM!) soft patches of sand which will grab your tire and throw you off. I lie in the sand and check my bleeding shin, waiting for this one to pass, but it doesn’t.

After a while, it clears up, and then immediately gets worse. I feel like it’s stripping a layer of paint off of me.

I should have brought a dust mask and some goggles. Next time. For now, I’ll make do, and try to find my way back to camp. Visibility is less than 20 feet, so it takes a while.


I’m told this dust storm is very unusual. It lasts all day long.

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All day. The wind is outrageous. Venturing out into it is sketchy, but a few people still do.

Back at camp, I borrow a dust mask permanently (thanks guys!), and decorate it so I can tell it’s mine.


We venture out now and then to make sure the structure is still holding, and get supplies from our cars. Even inside the trailer, the dust is everywhere. By the way, I’ve decided not to sleep outside tonight.

There’s some old guy with grey hair in the mirror.

The dust isn’t just in my hair, it is my hair.

THIS is Ceti Alpha Five!

The best thing about being trapped in the trailer is the spicy Indian chicken my muse made for us. It’s the perfect lunch, sort of like pure concentrated love.

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In the evening, the wind starts to slow down, and we go out to survey the damage. It’s a mess, but the structure held. Just barely.


As it calms down, people start to emerge. They’re still wearing masks, but for miles around you can feel the beginning of that a very very large party.


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People are helping each other rebuild their camps, focusing on the music and decoration first. If someone needs something, someone they’ve never met gets it for them.


I’m told this skull-tree marks “Firstcamp,” occupied by the founders of Burning Man.

The night turns lively right away. Music, dancing, fire, food, and thousands of friendly people.

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The huge jets of flame near our camp are actually coming from a tricycle driven by a stunningly beautiful woman. With fire.

Is it okay to fall in love just for a few minutes at a time?
I’ve decided that it is, and that this may be an essential skill here. I have not checked this with my muse.

You can just see her excellent boots here. Love, I tell you.

While searching for a friend of hers, Christine ends up leading me into a birthday party, where the theme is simply “Pink.” The cute birthday girl, Ali, makes it clear that I haven’t work nearly enough pink to her party, so she starts giving me things. Pink things.

The only blog-safe items among them are these:


…so now I have another hat not to wear when I travel interdimensionally.

Still, she’s right. I do belong at her pink party now. Those glasses make it hard to see exactly who’s who. They’re sort of like ultra-powerful rose-colored beer goggles. I decide that’s too much danger, and wear them up on the brim of the hat.

It’s late when we get back to camp. We make dinner (a combination of Christine-love and Muse-love).

While I’m cooking the potatoes, the trailer’s smoke alarm goes off. Excellent, giant jets of flame from hot fire-bike-chick, and my potatoes set off the alarm. I pull it from the ceiling, disable it, and set it outside. Anyone else complains about the potatoes, they get the same.

After dinner, I head out on my own, exploring. By 3:15, I’m back in bed, catching up on two days’ sleep.

Random assertion: When no one’s looking and there are no rules, people will help each other.

Steganographic data: 1826/0.7/15.0

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 8

Published in: on August 31, 2008 at 8:32 pm  Comments (1)  
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Day 101: Baskets of Glass

So you already know some of what happens today, but not all.

I wake up to her eyes, but also to the realization that the fire wasn’t a dream, and even if I could repair the damage to the robot, I’d never have time to troubleshoot the problem today.

About half an hour later, she had done what a muse does. I still can’t remember exactly what she said, but without even looking at it I knew the cause of the failure, and how to fix it.

Geek Details: The drive power circuit is basically an H-bridge, with power transistors instead of switches or relays. So if your control logic is (ahem) backwards, then the “all motors off” resting state turns into “hold the motors still but heat up the high-power resistors as fast as you can and see what catches on fire first” mode.

A quick look at the injured robot verifies that this is what happened, and I should be able to fix it. So I set it aside and we go out to play at another excellent museum.

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This is the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. They’ve got a huge exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass work now. Unlike many exhibits, non-flash photography is allowed in this one.


If you’ve seen Chihuly’s work before, then you know to expect a lot of really huge, cool, brightly-colored pieces that resemble sea creatures. The techniques he and his assistants use to make these things are extraordinary.

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So I’m drawn to the one that looks like an urchin. So what.
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All of these bright forms are beautiful, and pretty much what I expected to see. The part of the exhibit that took me by total surprise was the Baskets series. These are made (from glass) to look like Native American basket work. I love them.

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There’s a lot of great work in this exhibit, and none of it is safe to climb on.

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Quick aside #1:
Shannon and Christine are leaving for Burning Man today. They’re all packed up and ready to go. I’ve never been there, but it sounds like a lot of crazy fun.

They strongly encouraged me to come with them, but I had to decline. It’s the last few days of my vacation, after all.

Shannon’s bike plays the William Tell Overture as he rides.

Quick aside #2:
One of my muse’s superpowers is that she can hear 4-leaf clovers. Walking outside the museum with me today she stopped, leaned down, and handed one to me.

I’ve pasted this one into the book I’m about to read.

Back at home, we’re relaxing and working on projects again.

I get the repairs all done on the robot’s power circuit, and the motors still won’t move. Just as I’m starting to think it’s not going to work, the house starts to smell really good.

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The smell of fresh scones kicks something in my brain, and I get it.

The motor power’s not connected. Yeah, so I, um, plug it in, and the motors leap to life, making me cheer and dance in a less-than-dignified manner.

Quick aside #3:
In case you still had any doubt about knitters being good at math and logic, check this out. I snuck a picture of her notes:
My muse is planning something involving purple yarn and possibly a blowtorch.

I get the robot all closed up and do the first real operational tests.

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…so that’s it. You’re all caught up now.

Random assertion: Once a decision
> HEY WAIT! That can’t be all! What about the sandstorm? What about the smoke detector and the fuzzy pink hat?

Oh right, that. Okay, so I actually called Shannon back a few days ago, and left a message:

“Hey sir. When I said I no, I was clearly malfunctioning. If the couch is still available, I’m in. And I’ll build something to bring. Maybe a robot, we’ll see.”

…and so I’m all packed up too.

In the back seat, you can see the yellow robot (not yet desert-proof, but there’s time) and yes, the Captain Goldfish hat. There’s a telescope in there somewhere too.

…and my muse made fresh scones for me to bring, as well as spicy Indian chicken and other great food-love. She knows what I’m going to need, always.

At 7:30pm, we start the drive.

As it turns out, there will be no dividing line (sleep) to separate today from tomorrow. So I’ll draw the line here, at 7:30. Tomorrow things get a little interesting.

Random assertion: Given the choice, pick the thing you’ve never done before.

Steganographic data: 1818/4.4

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 8

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 10:08 am  Comments (1)  
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Day 100: Day One Hundred!

Speaking of the Castro Theatre, check this out.

West Side Story
, The Godfather, and sing-along The Little Mermaid. All on one marquee. How awesome is that?

I’m leaving town tomorrow afternoon, and my muse can’t come with me this time, so we’re spending today and tomorrow playing in museums and working on fun projects.


This is SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They’ve got an exhibit of Frieda Kahlo‘s work currently. We spend a long time enjoying that, as well as some fantastic Chinese contemporary art. There’s one piece by Sui Jianguo of Chairman Mao sleeping on a field of plastic dinosaurs.


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SFMOMA also has an excellent café. We spend most of the nice sunny day at the museum and the surrounding area.

Back at home, the muse is knitting (remember what I said about knitting? Be on your guard), while the cats keep her pinned in place.


Excellent! She’s got them distracted. Time to finish the robot.

Here’s the final sensor array. (The electrical tape is temporary, to protect the eyes, and to make it easier to test. Their cones of vision don’t overlap, so I can trigger just one at a time.)


…and then the wires from the array go to the main logic board…


…and then tap into the motor-control lines on the pre-existing circuit…


…but when I try it out, it’s not working. The toy’s radio control chip is overriding my circuit’s taps, holding the motors inactive. So, it’s got to go.

I’ve thought of all sorts of delicate ways to do this, but I’m a little tight for time. I grip the circuit board with my wire stripper, say out loud “This is a really bad idea,” and twist.



There, it’s done. No going back now. Time to close it up and give it a test.

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Why is there a knot in the wire? Strain relief, so that a tug on the wire won’t pull out the taps.
Why is the cat guarding my drill? It might move. If it does, it’s toast.

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All closed up and ready.                   Hey, screws! (sigh)

There’s a bunch more to do, and by the time it’s really ready, it’s after 2am, and the muse has gone to sleep. I’m sleepy too, but will be so happy to see it work.

So I switch it on, and the motors start working! There’s an odd noise when the motors should be stopped, but it’s basically functional.

Suddenly, “sssshhhhfffffffFFFFFFFFFFFFFT” there’s smoke jetting out of the case. It’s on fire.

  • No! No! Switch it off!
    • Pull the battery out (ouch, HOT! HOT!)
    • Blow a puff of air in through the wiring hole.
    • Open the case, see ashes flutter out, and smell burning plastic.

It’s not good. Wires across the power board are melted. Well, I did pull the control chip out with pliers. Who knows what that might have messed up.

I’m sad and grouchy and tired, so I go to sleep and dream about burning plastic and broken toys.

Random assertion: “Letting go” is vital in both art and engineering. The artist creates a vision, but does control what people will see. The engineer builds a thing sturdy and safe, but does not control the guy with pliers.

Steganographic data: 1828/3.1

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 9

Published in: on August 29, 2008 at 8:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Day 99: Fupfupfupfup

After picking up the car from the shop, I stop to get the rest of the parts for SP187.


On the way back from the electronic component shop is a small airport. Right next to it, there’s a Burger King with a real (non-operational) helicopter instead of a jungle gym.

You can actually sit inside it and eat your lunch.


I would never do such a thing, of course. And if I did, I certainly would not make “fupfupfupfup” noises and mess around with the controls.

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The warning sign is important, though. About 300 feet away, I see what it’s talking about.

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I don’t think he’s eating lunch in there.

Back at home, it’s time to wire up the sensor circuit and then start writing code for the brain.

Since I’m tight on time, I’m going to use a Basic Stamp for the robot’s brain. I’ve never used one, but have heard it’s pretty straightforward.

The brain chip is small, tidy, and professional looking…


…sort of not really like the mess of wires that’s going to pass for a sensor array…


There’ll be more of this tomorrow, so I’ll leave it at that.

Random assertion: There are things you’re allowed to climb on, and things you’re not. I recommend trying both.

Steganographic data: 1818/0.8

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 10

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 3:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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Day 98: Fog and Sparks

I’m back in town and oh, there’s so much to catch up on. Spending time with good friends, disabling a smoke detector, crashing face-first in a blinding sandstorm, giving the robot its first test run, and acquiring a fuzzy pink hat. So here we go.

Let’s wind the clock back a few days.


Woke up to crazy-thick fog. The car’s in the shop, so it’s a good day to wander out without one. I’ve got a few stops to make, and one of them is to get some parts for Secret Plan 187.

First, there’s time to kick the day off with a stop at the Chestnut Street Coffee Roastery.
There’s an excellent bar where you can sit and have breakfast and coffee. San (the owner) knows everyone here by name. He remembers what they like, and won’t hand you a drink unless it’s perfect.

By midday, it’s turned warm and sunny.

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This is the finished result from the demon stamp-o-matic machine. Walking across it makes your eyes go woogity, but that’ll probably get better over time as it gets grubby.

This product wins the “least appetizing packaging I’ve seen all week” award. Competition was tight, but the white syringe on the side pushed this one up for the win.

SP187 calls for four very small motion detectors. The Radio Shack on Market St. just happens to have exactly four, so the decision is made.

Back at home, it’s time to get to work.

Casual robot building goes a lot faster if you start with a working mechanical base, and then add sensors and a brain. Toys are usually the best place to start; they’re inexpensive and wacky.

The Motor Ball is a radio-controlled toy from the early 1990’s. This one doesn’t work. It broke 5 years ago, and I meant to throw it out, but forgot.

Opening it up, we get to see what’s inside. Surprise… wires and gears!

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The cat has decided that I’m ignoring her. She’s right.

She’s trying to hypnotize me and steal my robot parts.

…so with everything stripped off, here are the basic parts. There’s a radio circuit, some power electronics, a pair of motors at the bottom, and a bunch of gears.

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One of the gears is about to go skipping across the floor. (sigh)

If you like tinkering, but also enjoy being married, put newspaper between your project and the dining room table. Really.

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I’m not allowed to sit down until I give her something to play with.

The first thing to do is figure out how to drive the motors. I don’t know anything about this circuit, so some things need to be figured out by trial and error (and error). There’s one main logic chip, with a bunch of pins soldered into the main board. One of the pins is connected to the ground wire.


To find out more, I power up the circuit and touch the pins one at a time to ground, to see what happens. Nothing at all.

Now for the opposite (and more risky) test. With the circuit still powered up, I connect each pin to the 6-volt power source. This is just like figuring out how a watch works by hitting each tiny gear with a large hammer to see if the hands move.

The first pin I try sends sparks flying. Whoops.

Further down, I finally get a hit. One of the motors goes “rrrRRRRRrrr,” and the cat comes running over to watch.

It turns out that there are four pins which control the motors, so I make some notes.


I’m ignoring her again. Crunch crunch.

The new motion detectors I bought will be the robot’s “eyes” and need to be located close to each other. This circuit’s physically tricky to build, and is not going to work on the first try.

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She thinks the second attempt is the best one for batting around the room.

It’s time for a break, just in time to run down to the Castro Theatre. They’re showing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which I’ve never seen.
It’s excellent. I’ll bet some of the funniest parts probably weren’t quite as funny in 1953 as they are now. The audience is fun, and loves it from start to finish.

Random assertion: Lab assistants should be chosen carefully. Pick one you enjoy spending time with, and the rest will take care of itself.

Steganographic data: 1822/4.8

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 11

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 2:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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Day 97: Placeholder

Note: I’m packing in a hurry, so this entry will get significantly expanded when I have time.

Here’s the 10-minute version of what’s going on:
Secret Plan 187 is well underway. I put everything else on hold for a couple of days in order to give it a try:

  • Found parts in the garage, including an old (broken) radio controlled toy, and bought some parts I couldn’t find.
  • Built a small yellow robot, and programmed it with a jumpy paranoid personality.
  • Took it apart, threw out some parts, built it again.
  • Used pliers to carefully crack the circuit board, removing the radio chip. Replaced the chip with my own. Now it’s fully autonomous.
  • Switched it on!
  • It caught fire.
    • Put fire out, opened case and try to figure out why it happened and how much damage there was.
    • Damage too extensive, cause unknown. Went to sleep at 3am, grumpy because robot had been destroyed.
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  • …then, the next morning…
    • Woke up grumpy, broken robot still smelled like burning plastic.
    • Muse said something (unclear what it was), and I suddenly understood why it happened, and how to repair the damage.
    • Repaired robot, fixed programming and wiring.
    • Switched it on!
    • Brain working, but no motors at all. (That makes it a computer, not a robot.)
      • Inspected everything, decided that last night’s fire melted the motor coils.
      • Grumpy.
      • Muse started baking fresh scones. Kitchen smelled fantastic.
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      • Realized that motor power was not hooked up.
      • Hooked it up.


    • Switched it on!
    • It’s actually kind of cute

(This is with its motors set to “inside the house” mode so it doesn’t break the furniture)

I’m going to spend Day 100 testing it in the desert.

As soon as I can get a web connection, I’ll resume posting. Until then, be well and try not to break the furniture.

Random assertion: A real muse won’t tell you her secret. And you won’t be able to guess.

Steganographic data: 1872/1.5

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 12

Published in: on August 24, 2008 at 3:18 pm  Comments (6)  
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Day 96: Symmetrical Rescue

My muse has had a wardrobe malfunction at work, and could use some help. I’m bringing her a new blouse, which puts me in a strong bargaining position.

For you honey, special price.

…but then right afterward, I’ve suddenly got what appears to be a major vehicle malfunction. Yep, the car will be out of commission for a day or so. Time for her to come to my rescue, but this time the bargaining advantage is hers. “Special price, honey.”


Also, today I get the spark of an idea for Secret Plan 187, which is going to involve building a small paranoid robot. I need to go home and hunt for parts. Don’t worry, tomorrow’s post will have plenty of information on this one.

Random assertion: Negotiation is a game which involves both skill and position. Only one of these may be obtained by luck, which makes it fleeting and unreliable.

Steganographic data: 1800/2.0

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 13

Published in: on August 23, 2008 at 11:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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Day 95: Chutes and Ladders

(Author’s note: Something’s happening soon which might make me vanish for a few days, so I’m going to quickly get the past couple days posted.)

Most of today was spent writing telescope software for Secret Plan 174.

Geek details: I moved the code over to Linux, since that’s what the actual telescope computer will be running. I’m using Xubuntu (chosen via bake-off for simplicity and fast boot time), but found a flaw in it (light-blue screen of pain and immobility). It took a few hours to figure out a workaround (deleting all of my .* files). If you know the real solution to this one, I’m interested.

The cats are excited and thrilled by all of this.


I haven’t got the actual telescope computer yet, so I’m using VirtualBox (thanks to brilliant muse!) which is making things very easy.

Since Mom, Dad and Chuck are back from Alaska, I’ve sent the telescope code down to them. Dad, never having seen the code before, got it compiling and running the same day. My folks are crazy-smart that way.

It’s overcast today, but pretty warm. Perfect to blow off Linux and dot-files and telescopes and go read some sci-fi in a café.

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Stairway shortcuts are all over the city, just like a game of Chutes & Ladders. They’re super-handy when you need to vanish.

The muse is going to be home late tonight (I can hear what sounds like a cutting torch in the background, so she’s almost done with the job). So I head to Fattoush.

She and I are regulars here. Abed, the owner, greets me with a glass of wine and some great stories. He runs a fantastic operation, and it’s an easy walk from our place. Even better, he’s building a brand new wine bar in the back. It’s almost done.

If you want a hot tasty meal, I recommend the Barhoumi, Tabsi, and Mansaf.

Walking home, I realize the sky has completely cleared except for a cool-looking strip of cloud over downtown. I love this place.


Random assertion: In nine hundred years, when everyone has forgotten what computers are, religious wars will be fought over differences which can be traced to Mac, PC and Linux.

Steganographic data: 1798/4.4

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 14

Published in: on August 23, 2008 at 10:11 am  Comments (3)  
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Day 94: Sketchy Camera Placement

Most of today is spent in acrobat training, doing my best to collect broken bones and scars, or at least get very very tired.

First I talk to my instructor for some new skills and pointers. He’s so glad I’m wearing a helmet.

Gentle reminder: Do not attempt acrobatic activity without professional instruction and safety equipment, or you will die.

For warmup, I’m doing the same monkey-work as last time, except I’ve very carefully set the camera in a place where I should be able to roll over it without shattering it into a thousand pieces. Let’s see how it went.

I actually went just a little crooked. I don’t think I’ll try that one again, it wasn’t the best idea ever.

The next skill involves learning to control the very heavy wheel when it’s moving quickly. Obviously the point is to have my feet off the ground, but I’m still working up to that. Once again, the idea is to control the wheel well enough that it doesn’t crush the camera.

Wow, that one is a lot of work. My brother is clearly having me do it because he hates me.

…and now it’s time to get you a little dizzy. Yep, your turn.

Not the best camera handling, I know. Still, it’s almost got a little 2001: A Space Odyssey thing going on.

Random assertion: Gravity is not a force. It’s an interaction between matter and spacetime which gives the appearance of acceleration where there is none. You can choose to ignore it altogether, but have some ice and aspirin handy.

Steganographic data: 1814/5.8

Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 4:13 pm  Comments (4)  
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Day 93: Flatland Uni

Today my Muse and I are laying low, working on ID cards for a secret project of hers, and taking in some Olympics action.

We also took a walk, and found this sign.

Poor little lost ball. I hope they didn’t lose it on one of these hills.

So in 93 days of posts, you haven’t had to put up with my crazy ramblings about things that don’t make sense. No really, you haven’t.

Usually my muse has to put up with those nuggets of questionable reasoning. Today it’s you.
She says to say “Thanks, I owe you one.”

Crazy Rambling #1: Sea Urchin Intelligence

So you might not remember this, but I do. When I stepped down on a sea urchin (45 days ago in St. Croix), I collected about ten small-to-medium spines in my foot, as well as two big thick ones. One of those, right in the middle of the heel, is still there.


I can still see it (I’ll spare you the photo), and some days while walking with my muse I have to stop and say “Hang on a sec love, my urchin’s hurting,” and she understands, and I love her.

This isn’t a complaint; it’s some background info for something that would otherwise sound too random. Specifically, this:

It’s talking to me.

No, not the spine. That would be silly.
The urchin.

It’s not speech really, more of a thought-directing thing, but it’s got me realizing some things about urchins I hadn’t considered before.

As you can see here, urchins are complex and beautiful. They’re also all about sex and food, with no brain to speak of. So we understand each other pretty well.

…so now for the physics part. Oh shush.

We’ll borrow some well-known ideas from Flatland (by Edwin A. Abbott in 1884) and from Richard Feynman (Gravitation lecture, “smart bugs on a hot plate”).

Imagine a two-dimensional guy in a two-dimensional world. Flat-guy isn’t just very flat, but perfectly flat. He can’t see outside the 2D world, can’t leave it, and can’t even picture what a third dimension would be like.


He lives in a flat. He enjoys flat coffee, rides a flat bus, and uses a flat ATM to get flat money.

Now imagine his flat world happens to intersect a three-dimensional sea urchin. He can’t imagine a 3D urchin at all, but in the places where the spines pierce his happy flat-world, our flat-guy sees a bunch of round spiky purple critters.

Or if he doesn’t see them, he might step on them by accident. Oh, what a dumb little flat-guy.

He’s seeing a 2D projection of a 3D creature, and what he sees still isn’t too far from what we see.

BUT, what looks to him like a whole bunch of urchins is really just some very small parts of a single urchin. If he dissects them, he won’t find a brain, because it’s not there. He’ll conclude that they’re not intelligent. So sad.

SO… back in the three-dimensional world, where does that leave us? Anywhere we find a sea urchin, you’ll usually find a whole bunch of them.

Maybe we’re just seeing a 3D projection of a 4D (or 6D) creature. Maybe they’re all parts of the same creature, and maybe the most important parts are beyond our view.

SO… if sea urchins are intelligent multidimensional critters, then could a guy with a large painful sea urchin spike in his foot (just anyone, really) learn to cross over into other dimensions? I’ll try.

If it works, I have promised my muse I won’t wear the Captain Goldfish hat while traveling interdimensionally.


I think her reply was “Whew.”

Random assertion: Sea urchins may be the second-most intelligent creatures on Earth, just below aspen trees. Still, they’re tasty.

Steganographic data: 1822/1.8

Published in: on August 20, 2008 at 11:52 am  Comments (8)  
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