New Year’s Letter

For anyone who did not get a copy of this years end-of-year newsletter, click here to download it.

Over the years, I have found many holiday letters force the reader to read everything and then they can decide afterwards what parts they did and did not have an interest in reading.  We decided to let the reader pick and choose up front and to put in a variety of content themes.  We hope you like it.

Technical note: For those of you who are techies, I hand-edited all of the photos in Photoshop and created each of the five pages in Photoshop.  The pages were printed to PDF using the Adobe printer driver as it makes for smaller pages than the “Save As” feature in Photoshop.

Review: Beautiful Evidence by Tufte

I read Tufte’s early works many years ago, but I had not seen any of his more recent work and so I bought a hard copy of Beautiful Evidence (2006) this past month.  He is a man who talks about design and it shows in the fabrication of his book which is a physical pleasure to pick up with its high quality paper, selection and fonts, and wonderful images from a variety of disciplines.

The book can be picked up by a beginner to the subject of visualization.  It starts slowly talking about how information is mapped into the visual space.  It’s interesting, though a bit on the esoteric side.  For example, he shows diagrams from the 18th century on how to perform a dance.  While intricate and clever in their notation, I find such materials to be completely antiquated.  A properly edited video showing closeups of real people combines melody, rhythm, and dance moves in ways that printed diagrams cannot come close to replicating regardless of their sophistication.  Clearly, for some forms of communication, the printed word or picture is not the best medium.

However, when he moves into the discussion of word-sized graphics which he calls sparklines (a term he invented), his discussion is both persuasive and compelling.  Graphics don’t need to be half pages with 99.9% white space.  They can be the height of type and 7-10 characters long and convey a massive amount of information.   Likewise, when he moves to analysis of Feynman diagrams, he shows that small, colorful, symbolic, and notated graphics compact a great deal of information.  Think of electronics diagrams.

His section on principles of analytical design is equally illuminating.  He uses a 19th century diagram of Napoleon’s troop movements to illustrate a number of principles.  I think this is particularly brilliant because we tend to assume that we are smarter than people 150 years ago instead of just knowing more.  An insightful design 150 years ago still shines upon brilliant analysis.

I’m not sure that I really understood the importance of including the last section on sculptural pedestals.  It struck me as more of the author’s personal interest than really adding to the content of the book he was writing, and I would have preferred more reading on some of the other subjects.  But this is minor, and does not diminish the insights or obvious effort that he spent creating the work.


Could have been killed

Today my girlfriend and I were to take off in a plane from topside Molokai to Honolulu for a few days away from the settlement.  The plane was a single engine Cessna, and one of the very few to be certified to carry commercial passengers over water since it only has one engine.  Anyway, we had to wait from 10:30 until about 2:30 because the plane was dead on the tarmack.  The engine would not start; we were told it was the igniters, and the second set of the them had failed.  We had to wait for the mechanic to come over from Honolulu and bring parts.   Anyway, I took special note of where the life vests were located and decided it was OK since the mechanic was in the seat next to me.  The pilot was in a rush to get the plane over to Honolulu as he said it needed to turn around in Honolulu to come back and do another run.

Photo of the plane taken by another plane traveling by.

Well, the story is predictable.  The plane returned to Molokai and picked up a full load of passengers at the settlement.  The engine failed shortly after lift off and the plane ended up in the ocean with a tragic result.  One passenger, the governer’s Health Director (who approved Obama’s birth certificate), died in the water before being picked up.  As someone who has worked a lot with electro-mechanical systems (see article about my old car), I know how hard it is to properly diagnose such problems.  That’s why I had the concern about getting in the plane.  Whether or not the plane should have been placed into the hangar for close examination and maintenance is something the FAA and the courts will determine.

FYI, one passenger, a former marine, swam an hour against the current to get to the rocks of the island where he reportedly pulled out a waterproof phone and called his wife.  Semper Fi!

Mind Boosters

I read a NY Times article today about tDCS or Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation.  Basically, it involves putting on a thinking cap.  This thinking cap has external electrodes on it which will transmit electro-magnetic radiation directly into your brain.  This causes the neurons in the targeted regions to fire.  Result: Improvements on mental performance tests.  As I recall, these technologies were initially conducted with deep brain implants for helping patients with chronic depression who did not respond to medication, and the results bordered on miraculous.  Now they are testing these technologies to help the elderly forestall conditions like Parkinson’s disease.   See:  Maybe they will come out with just a thinking cap for the rest of us who like to relax in the cool of the evening and consider the universe.

For what it is worth, there are do–it-yourself neurologists who are building homemade versions of these stimulators.  That strikes me as inherently risky since it is important to know precisely where you are pointing the stimulation.   However, just search on “Youtube DIY transcranial” and you will probably see some.

Finally, if you are looking for an over-the-counter brain booster, there are two no-prescription items that I can suggest.  The first is a chemical compound known as Piracetam, and the Wikipedia article describing it is here.  I don’t take any vitamins or prescriptions, but I have taken some Piracetam and can say that it actually works for me.  The chemical enhances acetylcholine uptake which is necessary for memory formation.  I have found that it not only helps with memory, but provides a “lift” like caffeine without any of the jitters, and for some people it seems to have almost an anti-depressant effect.  Anyway, because the body tolerates the compound so well and is safe, the FDA deregulated it almost 10 years ago.  It has had double blind placebo controlled studies as I recall that showed effectiveness for aphasia.  If you buy some and take it, you may also want to buy some choline or lecithin (natural source of choline) which is the precursor for the acetylcholine which you will burn up.  Note: You might ask how I found out about this compound, and the answer is simple.  My mother had a stroke and she took this to help her overcome some of her aphasia and other loss.  Years later, when I saw that the FDA had deregulated it and made it like aspirin, I decided to give it a try.

Second, a natural (i.e., not man-made) alternative is flower pollen.  This is sold as “bee pollen” since the bees collect it, but it is simply pollen from flowers.  It’s rich in amino acids.  If you have pollen allergies, it would probably be a bad idea to consume it.  A whopping tablespoon of that with some orange juice will enhance your thinking one to two hours later.  Or, if you want to dream in technicolor, take a teaspoon about an hour before you go to bed.   (Don’t take more than that or you may not get a good night’s sleep.)  You won’t have an altered state, but don’t be surprised if you have a wonderful insight into a topic of consideration.

Moved to Kalaupapa, Molokai, Hawaii!

A few weeks ago I left my Analytics position in Denver, Colorado, to join my partner Kate in Hawaii.  She is a nurse, and she took a position taking care of the last remaining patients who were cured of Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy).    Kalaupapa has a short, but rich, history, and, for those of you who are Catholic, you may know that this small village was the home of not one, but two, saints.  Father Damien and Sister Marianne came to Kalaupapa to care for those afflicted with the disease.  Father Damien caught the disease and died of it, though Sister Marianne did not.  Both were beatified in the last ten years.

The former leprosarium of Kalaupapa is blocked by sea on three sides and 2000 foot cliffs on the fourth.
The former leprosarium of Kalaupapa is blocked by sea on three sides and 2000 foot cliffs on the fourth.

Kalaupapa is visually stunning.  As you can see from the photo, it is flat peninsula that extends out into the ocean.  The north end of Molokai broke off and fell into the ocean leaving the highest sea cliffs found anywhere in the world.  Then, 250,000 years ago, lava came up and formed the peninsula.  The location was chosen for the Hansen’s patients because it was difficult to escape.  At the bottom of the photo, one can see the start of the black sand beach.  The next photo shows it and the cliffs more clearly.

Here is a photo of the black sand beach at Kalaupapa.  The cliffs ("Pali") are about 2000 feet tall and one must climb them to walk to the main town on Molokai.
Here is a photo of the black sand beach at Kalaupapa. The cliffs (“Pali”) are about 2000 feet tall and one must climb them to walk to the main town on Molokai.

Anyway, you can see why I say that the place is visually stunning.  The combination of the green cliffs which loom behind you with sun, sand, and ocean in front makes for some beautiful scenery.   Over the coming months, I will write more about the place.  Click here to go the National Park Service site for the place.

My Brother Erik – Master Musician

Someone asked me about my siblings, and I thought I would share a video of one of them.  My younger brother Erik is a composer and performer in Austin, Texas.  He’s performed on dozens of albums, produced about fifteen of his own, and was admitted to the Western Swing Hall of Fame.  Here’s a video of his group at Flipnotics, a small cafe on Bee Caves Road on the west side of Austin.

He composes gypsy, western, swing, folk, and surf guitar!  Here’s another example of him playing one of his surf guitar compositions (“Flash Flood”).  It makes me so proud to see him play as he is so gifted.

I am tone deaf; he has perfect pitch.  But he says, “Gee, John, you know how to do all that computer stuff.”

Old Car Commercial – Volvo P1800

I drive an old car.  51 years old to be precise.  And this week I saw a Volvo commercial with my car in it (well, technically, it’s a ’66 in the commercial, but that’s as close as I will ever get).  Nice commercial, and Irv Gordon (who you will meet) is a legend in my car community.

I drive P1800 Chassis #5046, manufactured in November 1962.  (When I say that I drive it, I don’t mean that I drive it as my second car; I mean that it’s the only car that I drive. 🙂  Here are some photos that I took of my car when it was tagged in California.  Drive an old car?  Send me a pic!

My photo of my car taken by the beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California.
My photo of my car taken by the beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California.
Glamor shot of my P1800
Glamor shot of my P1800