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/txt/ The Feynman-Tufte Principle

A visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van
By Michael Shermer on April 1, 2005


I had long wanted to meet Edward R. Tufte–the man the New York Times called “the da Vinci of data” because of his concisely written and artfully illustrated books on the visual display of data–and invite him to speak at the Skeptics Society science lecture series that I host at the California Institute of Technology. Tufte is one of the world’s leading experts on a core tool of skepticism: how to see through information obfuscation.
But how could we afford someone of his stature? “My honorarium,” he told me, “is to see Feynman’s van.”

Richard Feynman, the late Caltech physicist, is famous for working on the atomic bomb, winning a Nobel Prize in Physics, cracking safes, playing drums and driving a 1975 Dodge Maxivan adorned with squiggly lines on the side panels. Most people who saw it gazed in puzzlement, but once in a while someone would ask the driver why he had Feynman diagrams all over his van, only to be told, “Because I’m Richard Feynman!”

Feynman diagrams are simplified visual representations of the very complex world of quantum electrodynamics (QED), in which particles of light called photons are depicted by wavy lines, negatively charged electrons are depicted by straight or curved nonwavy lines, and line junctions show electrons emitting or absorbing a photon. In the diagram on the back door of the van, seen in the photograph above with Tufte, time flows from bottom to top. The pair of electrons (the straight lines) are moving toward each other. When the left-hand electron emits a photon (wavy-line junction), that negatively charged particle is deflected outward left; the right-hand electron reabsorbs the photon, causing it to deflect outward right.

Feynman diagrams are the embodiment of what Tufte teaches about analytical design: “Good displays of data help to reveal knowledge relevant to understanding mechanism, process and dynamics, cause and effect.” We see the unthinkable and think the unseeable. “Visual representations of evidence should be governed by principles of reasoning about quantitative evidence. Clear and precise seeing becomes as one with clear and precise thinking.”
The master of clear and precise thinking meets the master of clear and precise seeing in what I call the Feynman-Tufte Principle: a visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van.

As Tufte poignantly demonstrated in his analysis of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, despite the 13 charts prepared for NASA by Thiokol (the makers of the solid-rocket booster that blew up), they failed to communicate the link between cool temperature and O-ring damage on earlier flights. The loss of the Columbia, Tufte believes, was directly related to “a PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyperrationalism” in which a single slide contained six different levels of hierarchy (chapters and subheads), thereby obfuscating the conclusion that damage to the left wing might have been significant. In his 1970 classic work The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Feynman covered all of physics–from celestial mechanics to quantum electrodynamics–with only two levels of hierarchy.
Tufte codified the design process into six principles: “(1) documenting the sources and characteristics of the data, (2) insistently enforcing appropriate comparisons, (3) demonstrating mechanisms of cause and effect, (4) expressing those mechanisms quantitatively, (5) recognizing the inherently multivariate nature of analytic problems, (6) inspecting and evaluating alternative explanations.” In brief, “information displays should be documentary, comparative, causal and explanatory, quantified, multivariate, exploratory, skeptical.”

Skeptical. How fitting for this column, opus 50 for me, because when I asked Tufte to summarize the goal of his work, he said, “Simple design, intense content.” Because we all need a mark at which to aim (one meaning of “skeptic”), “simple design, intense content” is a sound objective for this series.




/txt/ This MIT website will tell you how memorable your photos are using artificial intelligence

You know a memorable photo when you see one, but now so does a new artificial intelligence (AI) system called LaMem.

MIT’s website lets you upload your photos to try out the algorithm, which we first saw over at Discover Magazine.

To create LaMem, the researchers showed a random set of 60,000 images to users of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site.

Read the rest of this entry »

/txt/ The buildings of the future will keep rearranging themselves

One of the great laboratories of the future and its side-effects is science fiction. ‘The wall flickered partially out of existence as he stepped through to the corridor,’ wrote Arthur C Clarke in his novel The City and the Stars (1956), ‘and its polarised molecules resisted his passage like a feeble wind blowing against his face.’

Typical of the symbiotic relationship between science fiction and fact, Clarke seems to have got this idea from the physicist Richard Feynman, who in 1945 predicted the possibility of molecular engineering. Feynman argued that any material could one day be constructed from the atom up – and, moreover, that complex miniscule mechanisms (‘nanobots’) would become viable, ‘a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously’. It was conceivable not just that concrete, for example, would be strengthened with polymers but that it could come to resemble a living substance, mutating on demand. And then where would that leave architecture? Read the rest of this entry »

/txt/ How to Have 
 a Bad Career 
 in Research/Academia 
 Pre-PhD and Post-PhD
 (& How to Give a Bad Talk) 
 David Patterson UC Berkeley November 18, 2015

Acknowledgments & Related Work
  • Many of these ideas came from (inspired by?) Tom Anderson, David Culler, Al Davis, Ken Goldberg, John Hennessy, Steve Johnson, John Ousterhout, Randy Katz, Bob Sproull, Carlo Séquin, Bill Tetzlaff, …
  • Studs Terkel, Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. (1974) The New Press.
  • “How to Give a Bad Talk” (1983),
  • “How to Have a Bad Career” (1994), Keynote address, Operating Systems Design and Implementation Conf.
  • Richard Hamming, “You and Your Research” (1995),
  • Ivan Sutherland, “Technology and Courage” (1996).
  • “How the RAD Lab space came to be” (2007),
  • “Your Students are Your Legacy” (2009)
 Communications of the ACM 52.3: 30-33.
  • “How to Build a Bad Research Center” (2014)
 Communications of the ACM 57.3: 33-36.



  • Part I How to Have Bad Grad Student Career,and How to Avoid One
  • Q&A
  • Part II How to Have Bad Research Career
  • Part III How to Avoid a Bad Research Career+ Richard Hamming (Turing Award for 
 error-detecting and error-correcting codes) 
 video clips from “You and Your Research” (1995)
  • Q&A
  • My Story: Accidental Academic (3 min)
  • What Works for Me (3 min)


Part I: Commandments on
to Have a Bad Graduate Career

I. Concentrate on getting good grades

  • –  Postpone research involvement: 
 might lower GPA
  • –  Aim for PhD class valedictorian!Alternative: Maintain reasonable grades– No employer cares about GPA » Sorry, no valedictorian

    – Only once I gave below B in grad course

    – 3 prelim courses only real grades that count

    – What matters: Letters of recommendation

    » From 3-4 faculty & external PhDs 
 who have known you for 5+ years


Read the rest of this entry »

/txt/ How To Train Your Robot

Last Sunday, I taught six kids of ages 5 to 7 how to program. “In what programming language?” you may ask. Well…I didn’t use a programming language, at least none that you know of. In fact, I didn’t even use a computer. Instead, I devised a game called “How To Train Your Robot”. Before I explain how the game works, let me tell my motivation.

I learned how to program during my freshman year at MIT when I was 19. It’s not because I didn’t have a computer at home or I hadn’t heard about programming languages. It was because (a) I thought programming was boring and (b) no one had told me why I should bother. In fact, my computer teacher in high school had told me “you don’t need to waste your time learning how to program. Now we have visual tools to build programs. Programming languages are already obsolete.” That was in 1994 and he was referring to Visual Basic. Luckily for me MIT
wiped all that nonsense away in a matter of weeks. But does one need to wait to go to college to get the proper education?

Read the rest of this entry »

/code/txt/ Apollonian Gaskets in Python

Apollonian Gaskets are fractals that can be generated from three mutually tangent circles. From these, more circles which fill the enclosing circle can be calculated recursively.

I implemented this in python as a command line program that saves those as svg images. Below I will explain the math behind it and show some images.

1   How it works

The process of generating an Apollonian gasket roughly works like this:

We start with a triple of circles, each of which touches the other two from the outside. Now we try to find a fourth circle that is also tangent to each of the three. It’s easy to see that there are two possibilities for this: Either it lies in the middle of the three given circles (externally tangent) or it encloses them (internally tangent).

Figure 2: Three and four mutually tangent circles

Left: Three circles with different radii. Each is tangent to the other two.

Right: Two possibilities for a fourth circle that is tangent to the first three. Externally tangent (pink) or internally tangent (green). Read the rest of this entry »

/txt/ ‘In the future we will wear robots,’ says MIT ‘bionic’ professor

Hugh Herr, who heads the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab and has been dubbed ‘the leader of the Bionic Age’, took to the stage at DigitasLBi’s New Front conference to discuss the potential of a “transcendent human”.

Herr told the story of his transformation from double amputee after a climbing accident, to exceeding what he was previously physically capable of on the rock face.

With technology I am released from these shackles of disability – we will end disability in this century

Herr was told by doctors that there were many things he would never be able to do in life, let alone ever climb again. However, 24 hours after hearing that news he decided the doctor was wrong.

“Technology is not invariant; it’s being upgraded all the time. My body was completely fine, beautiful and powerful. The only hold back was technology and bad design. Technology changes and we can innovate. I climbed at a superior level after my limbs were amputated.”

In the future we will ‘wear’ robots

We will design nature and change nature under our own power – we will give ourselves new bodies

Herr said he embraced the challenge of what his new limbs could be, thinking of a “bionic limb”, rather than a fake-looking human false leg.

“I can be any height I want – think Inspector Gadget. I could climb where no one had before, with three-metre legs. A few people actually said ‘you’re cheating’.”

Herr said it was within our capabilities to fundamentally transform the biological brain and body, extending the sensory experience. He painted a picture of using technology to enhance our bodies.

“We will design nature and change nature under our own power. In the future people will be wearing robots. You don’t need a missing leg to exploit this technology – we will give ourselves new bodies.”

New identities: we are plastic and malleable

Herr said that in 30 year from now, everyone will be able to modify and sculpt their bodies in a way they see fit.

If you look at a photo after my legs were amputated, do you see the potential for a human who will go beyond human capability?

“Our bodies are plastic and malleable, our very identities are plastic and malleable. A year after I was told I was crippled, I was even more powerful and strong.

“If you look at a photo of me after my legs were amputated, do you see the potential for a human who will go beyond human capability?”

Herr believes that “disability will be overcome” through creativity and innovation.

“You can’t, with a straight face, say that I’m disabled. With technology I am released from these shackles of disability. We will end disability in this century.”

Herr concluded: “In the future, humans will experience a transformation in how they sense, think, feel and move. I dream of a world without disability; I ask you to dream with me.”




/txt/ Why Steve Jobs Didn’t Let His Kids Use iPads (And Why You Shouldn’t Either)

If you fall within the Gen-Y era like us, chances are you’ve given a bunch of thought as to how you would raise your own children in this day and age (assuming you don’t have children already). Especially with technology, so much has changed since our childhoods in the 90s. Here’s one question: Would you introduce the technological wonder/heroin that is the iPod and iPad to your kids?


Steve Jobs wouldn’t, and for good reason too.

In a Sunday article, New York Times reporter Nick Bilton said he once assumingly asked Jobs,“So your kids must love the iPad?”

Jobs responded: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Especially in Silicon Valley, there is actually a trend of tech execs and engineers who shield their kids from technology. They even send their kids to non-tech schools like the Waldorf School in Los Altos, where computers aren’t found anywhere because they only focus on hands-on learning.

There is a quote that was highlighted in The Times by Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics and a father of five. He explains what drives those who work in tech to keep it from their kids.

“My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules… That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

If our current addictions to our iPhones and other tech is any indication, we may be setting up our children for incomplete, handicapped lives devoid of imagination, creativity and wonder when we hook them onto technology at an early age. We were the last generation to play outside precisely because we didn’t have smartphones and laptops. We learned from movement, hands-on interaction, and we absorbed information through books and socialization with other humans as opposed to a Google search.

Learning in different ways has helped us become more well-rounded individuals — so, should we be more worried that we are robbing our children of the ability to Snapchat and play “Candy Crush” all day if we don’t hand them a smartphone, or should we more worried that we would be robbing them of a healthier, less dependent development if we do hand them a smartphone? I think Steve Jobs had it right in regard to his kids.

So the next time you think about how you will raise your kids, you may want to (highly) consider not giving them whatever fancy tech we’ll have while they are growing up. Play outside with them and surround them with nature; they might hate you, but they will absolutely thank you for it later, because I’m willing to bet that’s exactly how many of us feel about it now that we are older.




/txt/ Your home could become one giant iPhone, courtesy of Apple

Last year, Apple announced a technology that will let you control the appliances in your home with Siri.

It’s called HomeKit. And if Apple’s plans work out, it will turn your home into one giant computer — like the iPhone, but everywhere.

The iPhone, like any other computer, is a piece of hardware built by a certain company that can run apps and games built by other companies and developers all over the world.

These apps expand the functionality and usability of your phone — if you could only use apps made by Apple on your iPhone, imagine how limiting the experience would be.

Apple is opening up similar opportunities with HomeKit by allowing developers to build new features and apps that run your home. Read the rest of this entry »

/txt/ Edit Propagation using Geometric Relationship Functions

We propose a method for propagating edit operations in 2D vector graphics, based on geometric relationship functions. These functions quantify the geometric relationship of a point to a polygon, such as the distance to the boundary or the direction to the closest corner vertex. The level sets of the relationship functions describe points with the same relationship to a polygon. For a given query point we ?rst determine a set of relationships to local features, construct all level sets for these relationships and accumulate them. The maxima of the resulting distribution are points with similar geometric relationships. We show extensions to handle mirror symmetries, and discuss the use of relationship functions as local coordinate systems. Our method can be applied for example to interactive ?oor-plan editing, and is especially useful for large layouts, where individual edits would be cumbersome. We demonstrate populating 2D layouts with tens to hundreds of objects by propagating relatively few edit operations.