Whatever happened to self-expression, Facebook?

11
December
2010

It's always been sort of hip to hate Facebook. (Or at the least, since it expanded to include high schools.) I understand how counter-culture types have trouble embracing the frivolity and corporate ubiquity of Facebook, but I personally have often been unapologetic about my love for the huge social network.

I've always thought that the benefits of Facebook far outweigh its weaknesses. Sure, I abused it when I was a freshman in college, and I was sad when I realized that my parents' generation could friend me, but I still loved having a record of all my friends and acquaintances. I've used Facebook to reconnect with a guy whom I hadn't seen since preschool. I could touch base with high school friends that otherwise would have fallen off my radar years ago.

I have been a bit of a Facebook apologist when it came to the constant feature changes that have appeared on the website over the years. Silicon Valley companies really have to live by the mantra, "Innovate or die." On the whole, the changes have improved the site, despite all their privacy stumbling blocks. The fact that most of the changes have an "opt in" structure now has helped the company fend off the "Change is bad!" contingent.

The most recent changes to the profile are in some ways the best yet. The "friendship" pages that allow you to review the entire common history of any two people has been something that I've wanted for a long time. The unified look and feel for the wall, info, and photos is a great thing in my book.



But there is one thing that I really miss from older incarnations of the site: the opportunity for self-expression.

Sure, you can still be creative in your selection of your profile picture and in wall posts, but as a whole, the site now exists as just a series of connections that can be commented on, rather than personal representations of actual people.

My activities used to just list the four letter acronym of my singing group, "TUIB". It was there for people in the know, and it had the elegant simplicity of plain text. Now, the remnants of that four letter string is a fan page, incorrectly capitalized as "Tuib", that lacks a picture and a description and has a total of four "fans". The same thing happened to the fact that I listed "spending time with my sisters" as one of my interests. An empty fan page was created for something that was intended to be a shout out to two very specific people. What was once a personal representation of myself was converted into a meaningless link to nothing.

That is why I was actually sad to see the disappearance of that pointless plain-text box that appeared just below the profile picture. Facebook gave no guidance as to how to use it; it was just a simple but prominent place for self-expression.

I used that box to link to some of my favorite comics from my three favorite webcomics (xkcd, Dinosaur Comics, and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal). With the new profile, those links were moved to the top of my "about me" section, which is now of coursed buried way down deep in my profile.

To a certain extent, helping people manage their existing social connections is what Facebook is all about, more so than representing themselves to new connections. So in that sense, it is logical that Facebook should grant the prime screen real estate to day-to-day interactions, rather than static personal information. It is more of a communication utility than a public creative space. But still, it saddens me that our nearly ubiquitous social network is becoming increasingly depersonalized.

Faster than the Wind

31
August
2010

I have always loved learning about seemingly simple puzzles that smart people vehemently disagree on. The solutions to these puzzles are often very counter-intuitive, and the moment of clarity that comes from seeing that the solution must be true can be an intensely satisfying experience.

Probably the most famous of these puzzles is the Monty Hall problem, named after a game show host and involving three closed doors behind which are two goats and a car. It has a very simple setup, but reveals a very subtle truth about probability and selection that escapes most people when they are first given the problem. When the solution was published in a magazine, thousands of readers wrote in to say that it was nonsense, though it has been proved countless times both practically and theoretically. I won't describe it in detail, but you should read about it on Wikipedia and try the New York Times' simulation.

Another problem that caused a lot of heated debate on the internet involved an airplane on a treadmill which is set to go at the same speed as the airplane's wheels and whether or not it would be able to take off. This has all the trademarks of a problem with a very simple setup but non-obvious solution. Unfortunately, however, the answer is just that the question is formulated in a way that doesn't make any sense. I need only refer you to Randal Munroe of xkcd's beautiful explanation.

I recently learned of yet another problem which has caused many people on the internet to become enraged over other people's belief in a machine that seems to break the laws of physics. (Spoiler alert: This machine can be and has been built.) That machine is one that can travel directly downwind, faster than the wind, and is only powered by the wind.

I gave that description to one of the professors I work with and he was quick to think of a wind-blown vehicle that keeps going from momentum after the wind slows down and of a car that stores energy from a wind turbine and uses it later to accelerate to faster than wind speed. This made me realize that the setup needs to be framed more exactly. Can a car be built that uses only wind power and could be released from resting point in a steady wind and beat a free floating balloon to a point further downwind?

The intuitive answer seems to be no. If you can only use wind power (gravity is also out), then there is no available extra force after you make it to wind speed.

My professor was on the right track when he was thinking of storing wind energy, but it turns out that the wind energy doesn't actually need to be stored to be useful. Rather, it just needs to be kept in the vehicle's mechanical system and used to push back against the wind.

This can be achieved by simply linking a propeller with the wheels of the car, assuming of course that you have a relatively efficient propeller and transmission. The wind energy that turns the prop is also used to turn the wheels, but it doesn't dissipate there. The turning of the wheels in turn helps keep the prop in motion, so that it isn't just turned by the wind, it is turned by the wheels and pushes back on the wind. The propeller and wheels form a feedback loop to ensure that energy that is normally lost to friction is used to accelerate the car.

It might sound like I'm describing a perpetual motion machine, but I assure you that I am not. The beauty of this solution is that is can lose a lot of energy to friction and still be able to break wind speed. I find it most useful to conceptualize the propeller as what is driving the car rather than being the thing that is gathering energy from the wind. If you started the car off with a little push, you'd be accelerated both by the wind at your back and by the propeller pushing back on the wind. As the wheels started to turn faster, the propeller would push back on the wind harder, and increase your acceleration. This would continue until the drag on the car canceled out the wind's force on you plus the propeller's force on the wind.

I had watched this video of some folks who had built a manned cart of this design and struggled through this explanation which uses much more physics than I am used to dealing with, and I was ready to believe that this was possible, but I still hadn't seen why it must be possible. My own moment of clarity came to me when I started trying to explain how the car worked to one of my friends. He too, was ready to accept that it was possible but had to think a bit before he really "got it". His way of viewing it, which I found very satisfying, was to not think about the car as the thing that the wind is pushing on. Rather, you can think about the car and the air that the propeller is pushing behind it as being a single unit. It is the frontier of air between the propeller and wind that gets up to the same speed as the wind, but because the propeller is still pushing the car away from that frontier, the car can end up going several times the speed of the wind.

It is a source of comfort to me that reason can conquer intuition in these situations.

Blackbird can travel faster than the wind.

Let There Be Blog!

24
August
2010

Today is an important day, gentle reader. Today is the day on which I announce that Tuesday is the official day on which this blog gets updated! I come to this decision as a way of giving myself deadlines for my creativity, and because Monday is too soon after the weekend to commit to having something new to say every week.

Fun fact about Tuesday: its name derives from Middle English Tewesday, or "Tiw's day," in reference to the Norse god of combat and victory, often depicted with only one hand. He is also associated with the Roman god Mars, hence Tuesday's name in Romance languages, like the Spanish martes and French mardi.

I thought that this post would be a good time to set down a mission statement of sorts for this blog. The only other blog that I've actively kept was a LiveJournal that I had in high school. It ended up serving as mostly a sort of public diary where my friends could read about my feelings. I would also make random funny lists and the occasional essay about why I thought the culture in my high school was so terrible. One such essay was one of the very few sources of true drama in my life.

But that is not what this blog is going to be! I will not be giving updates on my life here, except as it pertains to my music making, or other internet-related shenanigans. I will try my best to give you thoughtful pieces every week about topics that I am interested in. Topics like, "Am I using the word 'electrocute' correctly?" (If by 'correctly' you mean 'according to its original definition', no, you're not.) "Can I avoid being gendered?" (No, you can't, and that's crazy.) "Is the set of all fractions between 0 and 1 a countable infinity?" (Yes, it is.) "Is the idea of Apple having a monopoly on the smartphone market scary?" (Yes, it is, despite the iPhone being great.) "What makes Dante Alighieri such a badass?" (He wrote a poem about complete knowledge of the universe!) "Is the existence of beings as intelligent as us an inevitable progression of evolution?" (No, I really don't think it is.) "Do you think people have the ability to instantly transfer ideas from their minds into the minds of people around them?" (Yeah, it's called spoken language!) And many more topics at least as interesting as those!

I find the world endlessly fascinating, and I want to be able to explain to others how understanding the world can be incredibly satisfying. Even though I'm interested in some really technical things, I am going to try my best to not assume lots of background knowledge in my blog posts. And while it might seem from what I've said that I want this blog to be educational, my actual goal is to be entertaining. I just happen to find that learning new things and figuring things out is one of the most fun things that you can do.

I don't want to define the nature of this blog too closely, as I'll certainly want to try different things out, and play around. I think part of the beauty of the internet is that it gives people the ability to adapt and redefine what they do based on the response they get. I totally expect to look back at these first posts in a few months and think that their tone is totally bizarre or that they misrepresent what the blog has become, and that'll be fine. Practicing my own writing is also one of my goals. Comments are always welcomed.

So, until next Tuesday, keep being awesome!

First!

2
August
2010

It was almost a year ago now that I registered davidamackenzie.com. Building this site has been a serious pastime of mine since then. While a lot of this site could have been achieved through WordPress or some other such software, I feel pretty good about teaching myself all the PHP, CSS, AJAX, etc. that this site uses. I learned a lot, and now I have total control over the final product, which is a satisfying feeling. And since I just got my music player working in Internet Explorer today, I feel it is time to set my website loose on the world. Or rather, to set the world loose on my site, since the site was always up, I just hadn't shared the link.

Now I need to switch from creating the structure to creating the content for this site. While I have lots of old music I recorded in high school and college, I've decided I need to step it up a level and start anew. I have a whole slew of new songs kicking around the back of my brain that I intend to lay down into digital files for your listening pleasure. I may also rerecord some old songs. (For those of you who knew my Name Songs project, fear not! The project hasn't been abandoned.) I also have grand aspirations to make this blog into more than a string of apologies for not updating the site more. (First topic to write about: How large is the number of possible tweets?)

So thanks for being among the first visitors to www.davidamackenzie.com. I'd love to hear any feed back you might have on the site or the things on it. And if you get a kick out of what I do, please spread the love!

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