Big Chime

Contemplate this record-breaking chime:
(Next week we will go in the opposite direction. Stay “tuned”.)

What We Have Read 2

The Black Swan
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Humans have difficulty thinking accurately and rationally about highly improbable events that have large impact. The “Black Swan” paradox refers to the paradox of probability induction, where observing each new white swans increases the probability of the statement “All swans are white” being true, until one travels to Australia and sees the first black swan, which completely changes the probability estimate thereafter. The author rails against modelling systems as bell curve probability distribution when not appropriate, and recommends a fractal Mandelbrot probability distribution. He describes a “ludic fallacy” (ludus, Latin for games). In a casino we can compute the odds, but in most real-life situations the rules are unknown, the odds are not computable.

Black swan events changes the rules. After 9/11, we suddenly estimate probabilities of terror differently. Long-Term Capital Management went bust in 98, with founding partners Merton and Scholes, nearly brought down the financial system, although Modern Portfolio Theory wasn’t killed.

The author warns that globalization gives the illusion of stability, but interlocking financial and manufacturing networks make Black Swan events have world-wide consequences. An earthquake in Taiwan might wipe out a key plant for manufacturing a plastic essential for electronics packaging, affecting far more companies world-wide than in a less connected system.

The book describes two countries of the mind, Mediocristan and Extremistan. Many key situations do not fit bell curve: winner-take-all tournaments, including high-tech industry competition, warfare. In the publishing industry a small number of writers make the bulk of sales. A few actors make incredible wealth, partially from luck, while most cannot earn a living.

Professor Taleb seems to make profitable investments by taking advantage of highly improbable events, without explaining explicit details of this strategy. In Chapter 13 he suggests a barbell strategy of highly safe investments such as T-bills, along with some investments in highly speculative beneficial white swans. Alternately, he suggests insurance against large losses in a portfolio, but it is not clear how to obtain such insurance at a price to still make a profit.

Why Beauty is Truth
Ian Stewart

Traces the development and application of Group Theory, in familiar format for popular math books of concentrating on one mathematician per chapter, with plenty of biographical information. Colorful life of scoundrel Cardano, sickly Abel, revolutionary (in more than one way) Galois, Hamilton, Lie, Einstein, the quantum theorists, Wigner, Witten, and more. The book finishes in triumph, when exceptional Lie groups appear in Superstring theory. Beautiful.

Covers a lot of the ground in “The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved” by Mario Livio, but plenty of differing material with the application to quantum mechanics, so please read both.

Omar Khayyam’s geometric solution of cubics was new to me, as well as some modern physics applications of group theory.

The Children of Hurin
JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

After the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, Morgoth captures and curses the warrior Hurin. The curse extends to his progeny and those around them, primarily Hurin’s son Turin. From community to community Turin travels, battling Orcs, eventually gaining the notice of Morgoth and his dragon Glaurung and triggering an invasion. The community is shattered, Turin flees, and the cycle begins anew.

The book focuses on Turin, powerful, noble, headstrong, and his life struggle under the curse placed upon his family. The curse is almost a main character in this tale, operating subtly, such as causing Turin’s best friend’s betrothed to fall in love with Turin instead. Murphy’s Law distilled.

The ending is memorable high tragedy, Shakespearean, with double-reverses, revealed identities, suicides.

It Can’t Happen Here
Sinclair Lewis

Describes how America could become a fascist state in 1936– similar to an alternative history of spec fic writers today. The narrative is largely from the point of view of Doremus Jessup, small town newspaper publisher. Berzelius Windrip, ably assisted by Rove-like Lee Sarason, defeats Roosevelt and becomes President, and immediately begins consolidating power. An organization of “brown-shirts” is recognized with government authority, an unnecessary war is declared, and soon Congress is controlled and the Supreme Court co-opted, the press taken. Liberals like Doremus try to alert the public, but are too slow to action, and initially ineffective against the Sarason propaganda machine. Doremus must face the dangers of insurrection against tyranny, with danger to family and friends.

Today a president might use more subtle means than Windrip’s initial overt power grab. A leader might use the power of a political party and media propaganda to sway voters to give up rights voluntarily in the face of an external threat. With a powerful party in control of Congress, one gets control of the Supreme Court, and rule of law can subverted.

The Sagan Diary
John Scalzi

Part of the Old Man’s War world, but not what one would expect: this is a diary of the inner thoughts of character Jane Sagan, musing on topics such as Fear and Killing and Love. Poetical or lyrical at times, informing the complex inner life of a principal character.

This short story was written as a result of a fund-raising effort for a library endowment: Scalzi announced if the bidding for an item got to $5k he would write a short story for the winning bidder, and a publisher took him up on the offer.

The Higher Power of Lucky (Newbery Medal winner)
Susan Patron

Lucky, 10, fledgling naturalist, lives in Hard Pan, a small quirky California desert community, where most people are eligible for government cheese. She likes to eavesdrop on 12-step meetings held at the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center. How can a community of 43 have so many different 12-step programs? Listening has caused Lucky to think about her higher power. Lucky’s friends are Lincoln, knot expert, and Miles, five-year-old cookie moocher, proud reader of one book: “Are You My Mother”. Lucky’s guardian is Brigitte, first wife of her absent father, who dropped everything and flew from France to take care of her when L’s mom died. Brigitte knows exotic things like using parsley not just for decoration. B tries hard and cherishes Lucky, but she doesn’t quite fit Hard Pan, and Lucky fears she might leave someday. Find out how Lucky finds her own higher power, with an especially touching ending.

This book was banned from some libraries because the word “scrotum” appears on the first page. Irony: Patron lives, breathes, and works at the Los Angeles Public Library.

The Last Colony
John Scalzi

John Perry and Jane Sagan, mustered out of the Colonial Defense Forces, are leaders of the new colony Roanoke, which becomes the target of a mysterious coalition of alien worlds called the Conclave. They are pawns in a struggle between the secretive Colonial Union and powerful Conclave, and must be clever pawns indeed to survive in this new world.

Peter Watts

An alien ship is approaching the solar system with deception and stealth, and an unusual team is assembled to meet them on the Theseus. Sarasti is homo sapiens vampiris, a resurrected subspecies, an extremely intelligent and ruthless predator, always several steps ahead of regular homo sapiens. Bates is a linguist with multiple personalities. Szpindel is a xeno-biologist with direct brain interface to equipment. Siri Keeton, the principal character, underwent a radical hemispherectomy as a child, and as a result has no innate empathy. He has had to build a model of human interaction as a substitute, and as a result is able to read body language and is hard to deceive, and has role of “jargonaut”, commissar, or observer, reporting the team’s actions back to Earth. How the team deals with the alien challenges the reader’s conception of consciousness and mind.

Sweeter Side of R. Crumb
R. Crumb

A collection of some of the “nicer” sketches of Crumb, as chosen by wife Aline. My faves are the first three illustrations, as well as the old buildings in France. Curiously, several banjos appear.

The Fall of Rome
Bryan Ward-Perkins

A trend of some historians in America and certain countries of Europe is to describe the fall of Rome as a Late Antiquity period, 500 to 800, as a soft landing, not the dramatic fall of a civilization in previous histories. Against this background the author discusses the archeological evidence, presenting graphs of pottery distribution over time, coins minted over time, average height of cattle, settlement density surveys graphed over time, and more. Acknowledging confounding influences such as back-to-the-earth trends of building with thatch and wood instead of tile and stone, possible reduced materialism, the author still makes the case for a sudden drastic decline of economic activity, reduced trade range, sudden decrease of population. To a non-expert he appears to politely and thoroughly demolish the Late Antiquity revisionism.

The graphs and illustrations are most valuable. Although the writer considers a number of reasons for the fall of Rome, he is not able to present much data on the political aspect of the fall.

Jo Walton

The story begins as an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery during a weekend gathering in British country estate Farthing House, set in an alternate history where England negotiated peace with Hitler. Later we are surprised with an entirely plausible case-history on how a democracy moves into fascism. Bloody brilliant read.

Pardon Our Sawdust

We will be updating software for this blogsite in the next couple of days, to fix a compatibility problem with Internet Explorer. (Always check other browsers– but Firefox is so foxy we sometimes forget.)

If we do something wrong and you cannot access the site, or articles fail to appear, this is why. We’ll get it fixed eventually, as with home improvement projects, so please bear with us.

Theremin Video Film Festival

Clara Rockmore
Samuel Hoffman
Lydia Kavina
Leon Theremin
Robert Moog
Peter Pringle

Cinema Connections
Jerry Lewis
Howard Shore
Day the Earth Stood Still Trailer

Grillo One, Two, Three

Fair Tales

Professor Eric Faden, Bucknell University, explains copyright brilliantly in “A Fair(y) Use Tale“:

(hat tip BoingBoing)


With over a month of blog posting and 35 entries, what have we been discussing so far?
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themes theremin thursday top topic tube tuesday un under understand update updates url user users usually var vcradio version view vista wav wavesong web weeks why winchime wind windows winhelp winxp without wordpress wp write www xp xxx y yimg

(kudos Word Cloud Keyword Density Tool)

Tech Support

We tend to avoid real-time phone tech support in favor of e-mail and forums, but sometimes a user tracks us down. It usually goes something like this:


(kudos Cosmic Variance)


Electronic music pioneer Robert Moog, born 73 years ago today, got started in the business while still a grad student at Cornell, writing an article on building theremins for Electronics World and selling a good number of theremin kits for $49.95.

“We had $13,000 in the bank, a humongous cache of wealth for a graduate student back then!” (Salon)

Later he went on to create the synthesizer which bears his name. Moog passed from this plane in 2005.

In celebration of Moog’s contributions to electronic music, check out these theremin kits (kudos Make). Then build something and play.

Moving to Vista– Part Quatro

We have been looking at Windows Vista (TM Microsoft) for a few weeks, seeing how it will affect Sagebrush products. View earlier articles Part1 and Part2 and Part3.

Recording Different Inputs Concurrently. Here is some good news in the way Vista handles various recording sources. Under WinXP a sound device may have several inputs, but only one input could be selected for recording at any one time.

Click on the “Select” checkbox for “Microphone“, and the current recording input is un-selected.

With Vista, each recording input is treated as a separate device. This means we could record from Microphone and Line Input at the same time, not possible with WinXP. This screen shot in RecAll-PRO lists different audio input devices, and notice that Microphone and Line are choices.

We tried starting two instances of RecAll-PRO, with one recording from Line In, and the other from Microphone, and this works under Vista, and not XP. Some users, needing to record several separate inputs at the same time, may now be able to do this without adding sound cards or expensive multi-input cards.

Monitoring Sound Input. With the advantage of recording from multiple inputs concurrently comes a disadvantage in Vista: there is no option for any sound card input to be heard through the computer speakers. Under XP, one has this option:

Here any sound card input without Mute checked will be heard from the connected speakers, with the volume of each input individually controlled by the slider for that input. With Vista, since each input is considered a separate sound device, and a separate device than any sound output device, no provision is made to route the audio from one device to another. The Sagebrush product mostly affected by this change is VCRadio, where un-muting the radio effectively un-checks the Mute checkbox for “Line In” under XP. Fortunately, we already handle certain USB radio tuners with separate sound input devices and sound output devices, and currently provid an alternate way to route sound from a recording input to the sound card speakers.

Context Help Disappears. Now for something completely different. In WinXP, most system dialogs, including those originally installed in Control Panel, had context help. You will see the “?” button on the upper-right corner of the window, and observe the “What’s this” pop-up when right-clicking text or other controls.

Context help is quietly removed in Vista system dialogs. Example:

This seems like a lot of effort to remove a feature. One clue may point to a reason why. On WinXP, go into Task Manager, click on the Process tab, and click menu View-> Update Speed-> High. Bring up a Control Panel dialog, right-click a control, and display context help. Observe that the new process that appears is “winhlp32.exe”, not “htmlhelp.exe”. Most WinXP system dialogs implement context help with WinHelp (event though non-context help is usually HtmlHelp), and since WinHelp is disabled for Vista, perhaps product managers opted to disable context help rather than move it to HtmlHelp, as we are now doing for Sagebrush products.

Chime Patents

Trawling Google’s patent database, we searched wind chime patents for sound ideas (pun intended). Here are a few notable audio-related patents, omitting ornamental designs and most chime-electronic-electric hybrids:

Adjustable wind chime clapper support 1990. A clapper may be raised and lowered to change the tone, omit striking some tubes, or silence the chime.

Multiple tone wind chime 1994. Strikers may be of different materials, causing different tones.

Multi-Ring wind chime 1993. Chime elements in shape of rings.

Wind chime apparatus 2004. Bell and/or striker rotate, producing tremolo or Doppler effect.

Combined wind chime and bird feeder 1993. Won’t this scare the birds?

Combined bird feeder that chimes 1992. Ditto.

CHIME-WHISTLE 1909. Sounding elements can whistle or chime. Why?

Musical Chime 1993. For an indoor chime, beads fall randomly onto chime elements.

CHIME 1951. Resonant frequency of vibrating tube may be tuned to match resonant frequency of air column in tube, via apertures in side of tube.