Category Archives: Creativity

Unpolished writing in the open notebook

Steve Crocker, Internet Request for Comments 3, from 1969: "There is a natural hesitancy to publish something unpolished, and we hope to ease this inhibition."

From time to time, someone reads Vacuum and comments that the writing looks unpolished and incomplete. Why would you publish this kind of work, which obviously isn't up to the standards that would let you sell it to someone for use in print? Why wouldn't you hide it in your notebooks?

I'm using this weblog as a notebook, and publishing my notes for myself instead of always as a tightly edited, polished, finished work. By exposing this part of a process I hope to be prepared to find some way to make myself understood, even if I don't completely understand myself immediately as I write through an issue or question. Thoughts go in, get refined as far as they need to be to make them coherent, and then go onto the net and into the world so that there's room for the next piece to emerge.

The open notebook is going to be messy, but it also means that I have some hope of finding my own half-finished work and revisiting it years later; when I don't do that, there's always something lost. Writing this way lets me tune into ideas, spin them around for a bit until I have a clearer focus, and move on. In most cases, I'm not ready to make things shiny and neat, and I'm content to explore facets of an unpolished gem over a series of years.

Previously, because I put it out there in first draft format so that I could find it again: make the first version coherent (from 2011);  creativity vs productivity (from 2008); on shitty first drafts (from 2007); wishing that my weblog looked more like my quadrille notebooks (from 2004).

Brick Bash 2011: Ann Arbor Lego event March 19 at WCC

Brick Bash 2011 was March 19 at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor Township. Show details are at I may have seen you there. The event is organized annually by Duane Collicott, who runs the Bricks For Brains organization that does educational, hands-on building exhibits with LEGO.

From previous years, a photo set: Brick Bash 2008.

Some highlights of this show; photos and links to come:

Big layouts with trains from the Michigan LEGO Users Group and the Central Ohio LEGO Train Club.

Mosaics from Christopher Doyle at Reasonably Clever, including a QR code mosaic and one that looks for all the world like stained glass.


Architectural models from Arthur Gugick, A Piece of the World; on the left is St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, next to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

More LEGO buildings, including a LEGO Renaissance Center and a LEGO Burj Khalifa. 

Several tables full of LEGO pieces for kids to make their own creations, known to cognoscenti as MOCs.

A LEGO version of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Edward Vielmetti watches his son Saul Vielmetti build with LEGO, and often cleans up afterwards. Reach both of them at or 734-330-2465.

Notes from a construction project

An old bicycle wheel makes a good pulley wheel.

An old modem, of any sort, can be repurposed by attaching a single RJ-11 cord to both ends of it; you now have a loop, and the RJ-11 threads through the bicycle wheel.

An RS-232 cable should be thought of as a very strong wire rope with helpful screw connectors. 

A transformer makes an excellent counterweight.

There is no piece of old electronic junk that doesn't have some possible usefulness as a part of a kinetic sculpture, whether it works or not. Remember, kids, the connector is the artwork.

My career in food service

As published in the Association for Computing Machinery’s Risks Digest, v4 n30, 1986:

 Fast-Food Computing


Tue, 16 Dec 86 16:15:04 EST

I must have been in the cycle early for McDonald's
fast-food intelligent man-machine systems, according to
Guthery's law:
>     In an evolving man-machine system, the man will get
>     dumber faster than the machine gets smarter.
McDonald's fast food computers (i.e., cash registers)
collect all sorts of data on the individual employee at
the counter and on all counter sales as a whole.  They also
do not have a <no sale> key that opens up the cash
register, probably to prevent theft.  That made it real hard to fix a
mistake without calling a manager to get a key to open the drawer.
Solution?  Well, the people I worked with at McD's had been
around thesystem long enough to figure out how to get around
it.  Without getting into too many details of why things were
as they were, the easiest way to open the drawer without a
manager was to ring up a sale that gave away a
tub of barbecue sauce for McNuggets and nothing else.
(Hit <promo> <barbecue> <promo> <total> .)
Of course, that messed up the daily statistics some.
Edward Vielmetti, Ex-McDonalds employee, Computing Center
Microgroup, U. Mich.


Nathan Schneider defends the memory theater

An essay published in Open Letters Monthly.

What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects—the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives—is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.

Any essay of lamentation about the end of books and the glory of human memory has to include some touchstones. Frances Yates is that touchstone here:

One of the books that I used to habitually pick up from my college library, and which, recently, I finally bought used, is Frances Yates’s classic The Art of Memory. First published in 1966, it chronicles lost mnemonic techniques, passed down from the ancient orators to the Renaissance humanists: spaces people would conjure in their minds to help them remember all the precious accoutrements of civilized knowledge.

The Art of Memory

One of the pleasures of writing incessantly online is the likelihood that you've run across something before, even if you don't have it in the top of memory. Prentiss Riddle wrote about The Art of Memory in 2003, apparently because I mentioned it on a mailing list, saying this:

[Frances Yates], [The Art of Memory] — just getting started on this one, which is an account of the history of mnemotechnics: the art and practice of expanding and augmenting the human memory. The classical account of this goes back to Simonides of Ceos, who had memorized all of the names and seating arrangements of the attendees at a banquet while giving a speech to them and was thus able to identify the dead when the banquet hall collapsed. Ancient orators used these memory systems to memorize long, long speeches.

Now, armed with a new word "mnemotechnic", I can go through and pluck out this precious specimen from Google Books; the Phreno-mnemotechnic dictionary, a work from 1844 by Francis Fauvel-Gourand with a preface that illustrates the noted figures in the history of those who have an exceptional memory. The bulk of the work is a dictionary compiled along the principles of "soundex", where words with similar consonant structure are indexed together and given a number. Thus you will find on page 62 the entry for 382 ("homophony", "muffin"); to make this make sense, you need to get a mapping between the "m" sound and the number 3, "f" or "ph" and 8, "n" and 2, and then encode.

Could there be any practical use for this? Certainly; this is a learned synesthesia, where numbers turn into words. If you ever have had to memorize a license plate number (I am looking at one where the partial plate is "6981") you know it's hard. But knowing that 69 maps to "sheep" and 81 maps to "fat" means that this vehicle can be memorialized as "sheepfat", which is wonderful in its own way.

Now where was I? Distracted, I guess. Like Nathan Schneider, my memories are indexed in part through the books I have been reading. The bookshelf that he evokes, carefully collected, is the memory construct that says that when you pull in one book you want to be able to leaf through the one next to it on the bookshelf, or the whole shelf full of them assembled for a purpose. You judge the quality of a story told through books by the quality and comprehensiveness of the books invoked to tell it, and you look for the bibliography eagerly for texts you have missed.

My bookshelves are too small to hold all the books that might sit on them, but sometimes there have been ways to make up for that. The photo of the bookshelf provides some substitute to prove not only that you have had the books but also that you know that some go together with others.

Find the book <a href="">The Art of Memory</a><img src="; width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> on Amazon.

assisted synesthesia as augmented reality

A comment I wrote on Ethan Hein's account of color-coding sequencer tracks:

When you say “color coding improved your ears”, the first thing that comes to mind is that you are doing some kind of machine-assisted synesthesia. very cool, that.

another enticing pice from oblong industries

It's true that one of the elements is a blue ball that bounces in time to the music and touches down on the notes that are playing just then. Also true: a ball like that can never be entirely serious, but it can be entirely effective. What works is assisted synaesthesia, making sound seem like sight and looking seem like hearing. The time in which music happens is turned into the space of the animated score.

And then pretty quickly we hit this video of John Underkoffler at TED on the future of the user interface. Not quite what I was after, very lovely in its own Minority Report style but not for the perspective I was after.

This has an interesting perspective from a synaesthete, but I won't quote based on the copyright:


An, finally, aha, wikipedia yields a reference: Plouznikoff, N., Plouznikoff, A. & Robert, J.-M. (2005), "Artificial Grapheme-Color Synesthesia for Wearable Task Support", Ninth IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computers, pp. 108-113

This paper presents the benefits of generating an artificial visual synesthesia through a wearable computer. Following a short introduction to remind the need for seamless human-wearable computer interactions, this paper makes the case for drawing upon synesthesia, a combination of the senses naturally occurring in a small portion of the population, to augment everyday entities and more precisely to enrich written graphemes. We present the rationale behind our research and summarize the functionality, architecture and implementation of our current prototype. Preliminary results suggest that this kind of artificial synesthesia improves short term memory recall and visual information search times.

and the followup paper crucially gives the link to augmented reality

This paper studies a novel approach advocating the virtual alteration of real-world interfaces through a form of augmented reality. Following an introduction reminding the need for easy to use and more consistent interfaces across our many day to day devices, this paper makes the case for using wearable computers to enhance the interactions between humans and conventional appliances. We present the rationale behind our research and summarize our current prototype's functionalities, architecture and implementation. Preliminary results suggest that virtually altering the interface of real world devices improves execution times for simple tasks using these devices.