Maya Angelou bowled me over…

Her impact was both literal and figurative: It wasn’t just having read several of her books in high school at the behest of Ken Proctor, but on my way to listen to a lecture she was to present at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine c. 1993.

I was a few minutes late, and apparently she was a few minutes later. While rushing around a corner to get to the auditorium, she came around the other side moving even faster than I. She easily maintained her footing while I landed quite soundly on my back side. Her companion, the terrifically imposing Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., leaned over, picked me up completely off the ground and set me gently back on my feet. Her gracious apologies extended to a far nicer seat for the event than I could have deserved being about 15 minutes late. She not only let loose my “caged bird,” she signed my printed copy as well. R.I.P.

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A Modest Proposal for Engineering Better and Faster Fast Food Consumption

"Yipee-ki-yay Mother French Fry!" How a simple fast food staple can help save the American economy.

Fast Food in America

America is well known for its fast food culture. So well known, in fact, that it may only be second to its best-in-class health care, phenomenal education system, and overall can-do attitude. Rarely does a day go by without one seeing or hearing a few disparaging words from the mainstream media about what we choose to put into our mouths and whether those items become lodged permanently in some cases. A Google search begun with the first letters “ob…” immediately has Google guessing what we want and prompts a potential search not just for “obesity” but for the very specific phrase “obesity in America”§ and the resultant search displays just under 73 million results in about half a second.

Our obsession with fast food is legendary. Books are written about the subject, movies are made, and we support a multi-billion dollar fast food industry. But how much time do we individually spend really thinking about what we’re doing? The answer hinges on one of our favorite pastimes and is one in which the root of our obesity problem sprouts: “laziness.” (For those incapable of doing the work of thinking for themselves and who just want the quick answer to the previous question given to them, it’s: “none”.)

“Americanizing” your Fast Food Experience with Some Simple Engineering

Given that we love our fast food so much that we can’t even be bothered with thinking about it for a few minutes (otherwise how does a book entitled Wheat Belly become a best seller and major fad?), I’m always surprised that the simple engineering concept which follows isn’t more widely known. If it were, it would be right at home in our gourmand, “have-it-your-way, right-away” culture.

The simple idea follows:

In some fast food restaurants (think Burger King and In-n-Out), instead of (or in addition to) the ubiquitous ketchup packet, they allow you to fill your own container with the condiment of your choice.  But what container do they provide you with? Obviously, in keeping with the assembly line beauty and grace of our ultra-modern food manufacturing empire and our disposable home furnishings industry, it’s something simple, something very cheap, and something immediately disposable: the small paper cup! (Even legal departments could get behind this one – as long as the industry wasn’t putting any hot beverages into it, and, in part, because the patent protection had expired.)

Standard empty ketchup condiment container on left juxtaposed with same container full of ketchup on the right hand side.

But it’s no ordinary paper cup! It’s an honest-to-goodness feat of American ingenuity and engineering design! (At least from a time when America had those things – you remember… way back before we gave them up for the improved qualities like laziness and obesity. And everyone knows the American engineering motto: “Quality is Job #1!”)

Standard ketchup condiment container "spread out" on left juxtaposed with modified container full of ketchup on the right hand side.
A feat of American ingenuity! (Who cares if these are called souffle cups?)

This high quality paper cup has pleats! And with a small bit of pulling around the edges of the cup, it opens right up – or “blooms” if you will.

In this process, the top edge of the cup comes down just a tad, but in exchange, the sides expand out toward the horizon in glorious near-infinite beauty. This simple effect allows one to put a significantly larger quantity of ketchup into it–particularly because the ketchup has such a high viscosity! (While I’m thinking about it has anyone considered liquefying ketchup so we could just drink it out of our big gulp cups? Maybe a French fry shake with ketchup blended in to make things easier all around?)

The Benefits of our Engineering Trick

“But it takes so much time and energy to expand out the sides of my cheap paper cup! Why should I bother?”

I know many of you are asking yourself this question because in a rapidly evolving and improving society it’s often the dichotomy of American life to maintain the status quo.  This simple expansion procedure allows you the following clear benefits:

  • You can put a lot more ketchup onto your plate and therefore ultimately into your gullet. Besides, everyone in America knows “Bigger is Better!” right? Why fill up two or three of these small cups, when one big expanded one will do? Or better yet, three big ones! (Let’s not forget our gourmand cultural heritage.)
  • It makes it easier to carry a  lot more ketchup in fewer trips from the condiment bar to your table. American pride in concepts like capitalism and increased efficiency at all costs dictates that we take fewer trips. The reduced amount of exercise is also a positive side-benefit here.
  • It makes ketchup easier to share. (I know this sharing concept is antithetical to the current American ethos, but maybe someone from one of those poor countries outside of America might be reading this? Maybe it’s a strong enough idea to quell the strife in Ukraine right now?)  No more approaching the cup at excessively steep angles to get your fries into it.  Now you can approach from a lower angle with your fat fist-full-of-fries and still hit your target.
  • Not only can you now dunk your fries, but you can actually dunk your majestic hamburger! Why waste time trying to open up that ketchup packet and squeeze some on while you’re making the effort to balance your heavy burger in your other hand? Just smash it into the ketchup and then smash it into your face! “Yipee-ki-yay Mother French Fry!”
  • Those suffering from diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and cataracts no longer have to worry about being able to get their French fry into such a tiny paper cup anymore, the size of the target is now bigger by almost an order of magnitude.
  • Use of these paper cups helps to support the American paper goods industry which churns out highly recyclable products which also have the benefit of being Green and therefore unquestioningly good for the environment. No one knows what those alternate ketchup packets are manufactured from or if they’re recyclable or not. Some fabricated laboratory studies indicate some of those packets may have heavy metals in them, which we all know are mined/sourced primarily in China.
  • And perhaps best of all, in the true spirit of America largess – there’s huge return for a very little effort! Everyone is looking for a get-rich-quick-scheme which doesn’t involve actual work, right? This is the closest you’re likely to come to it, and my friends who know a thing or two about the second law of thermodynamics agree. In fact, it might even qualify for the ethereal and long-fabled “free lunch” because, hey, most restaurants aren’t going to charge you for condiments are they?

Ketchup and the Economy

I have a deep, abiding suspicion that far too many Americans haven’t been taking advantage of these pleats in their condiment cups, and that, in fact, the marginal utility lost in manufacturing the extra unused paper when this isn’t done is very likely the root cause of the world economic crisis which began in 2008. The plummeting American efficiency numbers just weighed too heavily on our economy, but that’s a longer and more analytical story than I have space or phony facts to back up with here. (If you’re a talking head political pundit on a major cable news network, call my publicist and let’s talk.) Needless to say, if we can work this simple trick into the second grade core curriculum, I think our long term efficiency numbers will perk up and the savings realized could mean saving the beleaguered Social Security program until at least 2079.

Standard ketchup condiment container on left juxtaposed with modified container full of ketchup on the right hand side.
Super Size Me!


§ Obamacare was a close second.

† I was too busy lounging on my couch watching Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives on TV and eating a bag of Doritos and Twizzlers to come up with other examples like Supersize Me.

♦ Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admits almost as much in his book The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting (Penguin Press, 2013) where he indicates real estate as a leading cause of the downturn. Each of these condiment cups has a square inch of space hiding in its pleats and when multiplied over tens of thousands of cups per fast food location multiplied by thousands of fast food locations in any given year it becomes a lot of real estate rapidly, and the effect can become crippling.

‡ This also reminds me of a treatise I was reading last week called a Modest Proposal written by a political hack/wannabe writer named Swift. It wasn’t the sharpest thing I’ve heard recently, but with a few tweaks, I think his idea could make a huge dent in third world hunger and poverty and speed us along towards the goal of realizing Soylent Green in the marketplace.

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Robert Greenberg’s Music Curriculum

The Learning Company Improves My Commute

For quite a while, primarily because of lengthy commute times in Los Angeles, I’ve been regularly listening to audio lectures from The Learning Company in their Great Courses series.  Last fall I came across a four volume collection entitled How to Listen to and Understand Great Music taught by the dynamic and engaging professor Robert Greenberg.  I was immediately entranced and have vowed to work my way through his entire opus of lectures.  At the time I wasn’t quite sure how many there actually were, though I was aware of at least four others I’d come across on library shelves, and I prayed that there would be one or two more to carry me through a couple of years.  If I needed to, I was fully prepared to listen to everything two or three times to really soak it all in the way I’ve done with repeated viewings of television shows like The West Wing.

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, Third Edition

When I was partway through the series, I made an update to my reading list with a short snippet about my progress. This progress update fed through to Twitter whereupon I was pleasantly surprised to receive an encouraging comment by Professor Greenberg, who apparently takes the time to search social media for mentions of his work and to respond to students.  A brief correspondence with him revealed that he’s recorded far more lectures than I could have dreamed – an astounding 26!

Robert Greenberg’s Curriculum Recommendation

Of course with such a fantastic and tremendously large list of what is sure to be brilliant material, the real question becomes: “How do I create a curriculum to wend my way through it all in the most logical manner!”

Robert Greenberg to the rescue!

Via a most helpful Twitter conversation, Professor Greenberg recommended a curriculum for plowing through his material.  For posterity, I’ll repeat it below for those who are interested in charting his recommended course of courses:

  1. How to Listen to & Understand Great Music
  2. The Fundamentals of Music
  3. How to Listen to Opera
  4. Bach & the High Baroque
  5. The Concerto
  6. The Symphony
  7. Great Masters: Haydn
  8. Great Masters: Mozart
  9. Operas of Mozart
  10. Chamber Music of Mozart
  11. Great Masters: Beethoven
  12. Symphonies of Beethoven
  13. Piano Sonatas of Beethoven
  14. Piano Sonatas of Beethoven
  15. Great Masters: Schumanns
  16. Great Masters: Liszt
  17. Great Masters: Brahms
  18. Music of Richard Wagner
  19. Life & Music of Verdi
  20. Great Masters: Tchaikovsky
  21. Great Masters: Mahler
  22. Great Masters: Stravinsky
  23. Great Masters: Shostakovich
  24. The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works
  25. The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works (October 2013)
  26. Concert Masterworks

Given the magnitude of his opus, this obviously may not be everything, but will provide the tyro as well as the expert a clearer path through some fascinating work. I’ve presently worked my way through 3 of his courses (72 lectures comprising  54 hours of material), so I’ve only barely scratched the surface, but I couldn’t be more enticed and satisfied with what I’ve consumed so far.  His engaging lecturing style, the melodic quality of his voice (not too far from that of renowned announcer and voice artist Casey Casem – though with out the “big bottom” common to radio personalities of this type), and the dynamic range of his emotion make these series more entertaining that most of what is on television these days (and keep in mind I consume a lot of television). Even better, I’m always learning something while I’m listening.  I would dare to say that even if he “phoned in” the remaining lectures, they’d still be at an absurdly high quality level, and I would still want to devour them all.

Follow Robert Greenberg

Robert Greenberg Headshot: Graying Hair, wearing glasses, a slight smirk, black suit and tie with teal colored shirtFor others who are (or are soon sure to become) fans of Robert Greenberg, you can find him easily on Twitter and Facebook.
Happy listening!
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“We didn’t cover much, but we sure did learn.”

Steve Mitchell, algebraic topologist
on learning mathematics in Steve Mitchell short biography


Stephen Mitchell

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To Understand God’s Thought…

Florence Nightingale, OM, RRC (1820-1910), English social reformer and statistician, founder of modern nursing, renaissance woman
in Florence Nightingale’s Wisdom, New York Times, 3/4/14


Florence Nightingale developed the polar pie chart to depict mortality causes in the Crimean War.
Florence Nightingale developed the polar pie chart to depict mortality causes in the Crimean War.


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Workshop on Information Theoretic Incentives for Artificial Life

For those interested in the topics of information theory in biology and artificial life, Christoph SalgeGeorg MartiusKeyan Ghazi-Zahedi, and Daniel Polani have announced a Satellite Workshop on Information Theoretic Incentives for Artificial Life at the 14th International Conference on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems (ALife 2014) to be held at the Javits Center, New York, on July 30 or 31st.

ALife2014 Banner

Their synopsis states:

Artificial Life aims to understand the basic and generic principles of life, and demonstrate this understanding by producing life-like systems based on those principles. In recent years, with the advent of the information age, and the widespread acceptance of information technology, our view of life has changed. Ideas such as “life is information processing” or “information holds the key to understanding life” have become more common. But what can information, or more formally Information Theory, offer to Artificial Life?

One relevant area is the motivation of behaviour for artificial agents, both virtual and real. Instead of learning to perform a specific task, informational measures can be used to define concepts such as boredom, empowerment or the ability to predict one’s own future. Intrinsic motivations derived from these concepts allow us to generate behaviour, ideally from an embodied and enactive perspective, which are based on basic but generic principles. The key questions here are: “What are the important intrinsic motivations a living agent has, and what behaviour can be produced by them?”

Related to an agent’s behaviour is also the question on how and where the necessary computation to realise this behaviour is performed. Can information be used to quantify the morphological computation of an embodied agent and to what degree are the computational limitations of an agent influencing its behaviour?

Another area of interest is the guidance of artificial evolution or adaptation. Assuming it is true that an agent wants to optimise its information processing, possibly obtain as much relevant information as possible for the cheapest computational cost, then what behaviour would naturally follow from that? Can the development of social interaction or collective phenomena be motivated by an informational gradient? Furthermore, evolution itself can be seen as a process in which an agent population obtains information from the environment, which begs the question of how this can be quantified, and how systems would adapt to maximise this information?

The common theme in those different scenarios is the identification and quantification of driving forces behind evolution, learning, behaviour and other crucial processes of life, in the hope that the implementation or optimisation of these measurements will allow us to construct life-like systems.

Details for submissions, acceptances, potential talks, and dates can be found via  Nihat Ay’s Research Group on Information Theory of Cognitive Systems. For more information on how to register, please visit the ALife 2014 homepage. If there are any questions, or if you just want to indicate interest in submitting or attending, please feel free to mail them at

According to their release, the open access journal Entropy will sponsor the workshop by an open call with a special issue on the topic of the workshop. More details will be announced to emails received via and over the alife and connectionists mailing lists.

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Information Theory is Something Like the Logarithm of Probability Theory

Dr. Daniel Polani, reader in Artificial Life, University of Hertfordshire
in “Research Questions”


Not only a great quote, but an interesting way to view the subjects.

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Tool Review: Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag

Overview: Simply the best messenger bag out there

5out of 5

Pros: Delightful To Use, Roomy , Excellent Design and Engineering,  Napoleon Pocket, Lightweight , Great Strap Length, High Quality, Attractive, Great Craftsmanship, Comfortable , Durable

Best Uses: Commuting, School, Office, Day Trips, Computer Laptop, Airplane travel

Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag

I spent quite a while (months/years) looking at almost every messenger bag in existence (and even contemplated designing my own) for my mobile office and for weekly trips to study abstract mathematics at UCLA. I’ve been through dozens of bags (including one that could only charitably have been called a “murse”) and had problems with all of them – particularly shoulder and neck problems from carrying around so much weight. The Timbuk2 Command messenger bag ($139, medium, black) seems to have remedied all of that. My neck and shoulder pains have gone away because this bag is simply so comfortable it feels like I’m carrying half the load that I used to.

The two length adjustment mechanisms on the shoulder strap of this bag should be a requirement for every bag on the planet. I simply don’t know how I managed without them for all this time and now I can never go back. One makes it dead simple to take the bag on and off and the other allows for additional easy length change – the combination makes the bag wear incredibly comfortably.

As an engineer I can readily appreciate some of the very subtle design and manufacturing elements that truly make this bag a wonder. It’s not only functional and sturdy, but it’s both beautiful inside and out. Timbuk2 has certainly put some serious thought into how to make a bag. In particular the velcro strips at the top of the the flap to keep water out, the Napoleon pocket (so one doesn’t have to completely open the bag to retrieve frequently used items), the plastic strips sewn into the lining to provide additional internal structural support, and an ingenious custom pocket at the bottom of the bag for my cables and computer power brick are simply genius.

My only minor caveats about the bag are:

Although there are quite a number of great and useful pockets, I could do with maybe half a dozen more for daily use to keep either small items (I carry my desk in my bag) or organizing additional papers from floating around inside the bag. One can’t really fault Timbuk2 for this as it’s personal preference on my part and I haven’t seen any other bags on the market with a better designed grouping of pocket spaces for such things.

Having a slightly larger water bottle carrier on the outside of the bag would also be excellent, but it’s nearly perfect for my Zojirushi stainless steel thermos and most small (<16 ounce) plastic water bottles. I’ll mention that one of Timbuk2’s line of Classic messenger bags includes internal water bottle pockets for those that desire something like this — or who need full waterproof interiors. The Command bag is roomy enough that I’ve also contemplated using a Camelback-type of fluid reservoir and drinking tube inside for longer day-trips.

As a comparison, the next closest high quality bag I’ve seen in my research is Tumi’s Alpha Bravo Benning Deluxe Messenger Bag ($275). It rates incredibly high for design and beauty, but slightly lower on the functionality scale (which still makes it one of the top 0.1% of bags on the market in my mind, so if you’ve got the money, it’s definitely worth it).  It’s almost twice the price and though it’s got equivalent design touches and is made from some equivalently excellent materials with fantastic craftsmanship, it is missing some of the more interesting engineering touches including the engineering work on the shoulder strap.

Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag Open

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Tool Review: Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug

Designer/Artist William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” My Zojirushi stainless steel mug is one of the few things I’ve ever owned that I feel truly meets both of these criteria.

Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug

The design, materials, manufacturing and workmanship of the mug are nothing short of outstanding; the aesthetics and heft in the hand are truly fantastic. I really could not want for more out of such a product. I love looking at it, I love holding it, and I love using it.

I hope one day to come back and write a review worthy of how truly great this travel mug is, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m in love. I spent a LOT of time reading reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, and searching stores and vendors to find the best thermos/mug on the planet and settled on this one. Not only is it easy and intuitive to take completely apart and wash thoroughly (too many I’ve come across are impossible to take apart and clean properly, if at all), but it seals completely and doesn’t spill.

Even better it keeps my beverages piping hot or cold for far longer than I wish it would. There have been days that I’ve filled it with hot coffee or tea and come back several times to drink it hoping that it had cooled a bit only to find it still too hot to consume. After several rounds with this over an eight hour span, I finally opened it up and put in some ice so I could finally drink my coffee. Now I often just leave the cap open (or off) to let it cool a bit more quickly, although even this is a fairly slow process. Now I try to put my beverages in at the temperature I want to drink them knowing that that’s generally the temperature they’ll be when I get around to drinking them.

I love the fact that the cap is designed with a two stage opening mechanism (which probably won’t be noticed by most users because it’s so subtle). One pushes the button and the top opens just a few millimeters. Then letting go of the button allows the top to spring back and click neatly into place so that it doesn’t fall forward and bonk one on the nose when attempting to take a drink.

When I first came across it, I will admit I was a bit reticent at it’s relatively high price (particularly in comparison with cheaper mugs on the market, many of which I’ve tried and been highly disappointed with), but the Zojirushi is certainly worth ever penny; I would not hesitate for a moment to buy more of these.

As a small aside, I will mention that due to physics and the design of the mug that it can occasionally leak a bit when filled with carbonated beverages and then shaken. Doing this creates additional interior pressure that pushes up the internal seal mechanism on the cap that allows a small amount of liquid to escape. Beyond this small category of fluids, which I infrequently use with the mug (and I’m sure others probably won’t either), it has been absolutely airtight and worry-free.

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Lecture Series Review: “Augustine: Philosopher and Saint” by Phillip Cary

Augustine: Philosopher and Saint (Great Courses, #611)Augustine: Philosopher and Saint byProfessor Phillip Cary, Ph.D., Eastern University (The Learning Company, 1997)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This series of 12 audio lectures is an excellent little overview of Augustine, his life, times, and philosophy. Most of the series focuses on his writings and philosophy as well as their evolution over time, often with discussion of the historical context in which they were created as well as some useful comparing/contrasting to extant philosophies of the day (and particularly Platonism.)

Early in the series there were some interesting and important re-definitions of some contemporary words. Cary pushes them back to an earlier time with slightly different meanings compared to their modern ones which certainly helps to frame the overarching philosophy presented. Without a close study of this vocabulary, many modern readers will become lost or certainly misdirected when reading modern translations. As examples, words like perverse, righteousness, and justice (or more specifically their Latin counterparts) have subtly different meanings in the late Roman empire than they do today, even in modern day religious settings.

My favorite part, however, has to have been the examples discussing mathematics as an extended metaphor for God and divinity to help to clarify some of Augustine’s thought. These were not only very useful, but very entertaining to me.

As an aside for those interested in mnemotechnic tradition, I’ll also mention that I’ve (re)discovered (see the reference to the Tell paper below) an excellent reference to the modern day “memory palace” (referenced most recently in the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything) squirreled away in Book X of Confessions where Augustine discusses memory as:

“fields and spacious palaces” “…where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses. There is stored up, whatsoever besides we think, either by enlarging or diminishing, or any other way varying those things which the sense hath come to; and whatever else hath been committed and laid up, which forgetfulness hath not yet swallowed up and buried.”

Those interested in memes and the history of “memoria ex locis” (of which I don’t even find a reference explicitly written in the original Rhetorica ad Herrenium) would appreciate an additional reference I subsequently found in the opening (and somewhat poetic) paragraph of a paper written by David Tell on JSTOR. The earliest specific reference to a “memory palace” I’m aware of is Matteo Ricci’s in the 16th century, but certainly other references to the construct may have come earlier. Given that Ricci was a Jesuit priest, it’s nearly certain that he would have been familiar with Augustine’s writings at the time, and it’s possible that his modification of Augustine’s mention brought the concept into its current use. Many will know memory as one of the major underpinnings of rhetoric (of which Augustine was a diligent student) as part of the original trivium.

Some may shy away from Augustine because of the religious overtones which go along with his work, but though there were occasional “preachy sounding” sections in the material, they were present only to clarify the philosophy.

I’d certainly recommend this series of lectures to anyone not closely familiar with Augustine’s work as it has had a profound and continuing affect on Western philosophy, thought, and politics.

View all my reviews

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